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Kafka turned Gregor Samsa into a bug. Steven Berkoff turned Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis into Antz.

That’s a bit glib, to be sure, but there’s a kind of reductive justice in the oversimplification: Berkoff, after all, has flattened one of modern literature’s most subtle masterpieces. Kabuki makeup, rigid mimetics, stylized movements, and repetitive, ritualized dialogue work beautifully with the text of Greek, Berkoff’s outrageously edgy Oedipus adaptation, but applied to Kafka’s horrific tale, even in Jose Carrasquillo’s moody, thoughtful production at Washington Shakespeare Company, it all seems just a degree or two too studied.

Though he hasn’t entirely obscured the bleak core of desperation and alienation that has made Metamorphosis resonate in so many contexts, Berkoff, endlessly obsessed by class and capitalism, pushes too hard to make the story an allegory about oppression—of workers, of caregivers, of anyone who surrenders too much individuality on behalf of family, company, or country. Yes, that’s one of Kafka’s concerns, but Berkoff makes it the primary one, undercutting the arbitrary horror and thus the universal power of the original. DreamWorks and Woody Allen’s nebbishy little ant-philosopher are busy convincing the nation’s moviegoers that a little balance is a good thing, and no one’s arguing; it’s just that you’d expect Berkoff’s ideas and arguments to be a little more nuanced.

Carrasquillo recaptures some of the original play’s shadowy layering, actually, by cross-casting the estimable Delia Taylor as Gregor, the commercial drudge who one morning finds himself transformed into a giant dung beetle. Not that she plays Gregor as feminine, necessarily—she disappears quite thoroughly into the character, in fact—but her very physiognomy brings an inescapable subtext to the production, inviting us to reassess just who this person is who devotes himself to his family’s welfare at the expense of his own well-being. Among Kafka’s more specific autobiographical concerns was his mother’s subservience, her abdication of individual will in exchange for a supporting role in their family; certainly Rena Cherry Brown’s heartbreaking Mrs. Samsa never quite breaks free of her husband’s authority, but when Gregor, too, is in part a reminder of domestic slavery, the question of a woman’s place in Kafka’s society becomes more pointed.

Then, too, Carrasquillo’s production gets the amorphous twilight feel of Kafka’s story right. Ayun Fedorcha’s expressionist lighting and Holly Beck’s iron cage of a set (explicitly demanded, I should note, by Berkoff in his stage directions) help Carrasquillo’s extraordinarily capable cast conjure the malaise, the terrible loneliness, the vague sense of temporal detachment that make the original so compellingly creepy. Ron Oshima’s sound design, with its watery ticktocks, its hollow, startled wingbeats, and the tearing crunch that is Gregor at his meals, is near miraculous, a haunting and deliberately musical thing that easily becomes a characterization unto itself.

To give Berkoff due credit, the stage pictures he envisioned in 1969 retain a real visceral power: Actors fuse, silhouetted against a bare backdrop, into a single entity, arms stabbing at the air in eerie imitation of an upended bug’s articulated struggles. Climbing, swinging, spasming, chittering, Taylor traverses Berkoff’s grid-cage like some graceful nightmare. Brown, in an exquisite turning point that’s nothing short of a grim expressionist Pietà, finds enough compassion to comfort her irretrievably altered child. Later in the narrative, as father, sister, and even mother begin to turn away from the son who once sustained them, their own motions assume an occasional insectoid sharpness, as though to telegraph the idea that they are as degraded in their way as they believe Gregor has become.

And, though Berkoff’s stress on the family’s selfishness and greed pulls the story out of balance, he doesn’t tear the focus entirely away from where it ought to be. Gregor remains at the center, his pain and confusion still the chief human metaphor, his struggles to reconcile this new identity—with his people, with himself—still the murky, insoluble heart of the matter. Credit Berkoff, too, with dancing around questions of blame or punishment; if some Kafka readers interpret Gregor’s transformation as a kind of retribution, Berkoff sees it as an utterly arbitrary development, perhaps even a conscious, willful escape—though not necessarily into a better state.

Thoughtful, yes, and in Carrasquillo’s hands unmistakably stylish. Moving, too, inevitably. But an unalloyed success? No, sadly; ideology got between Berkoff and Kafka and clarified waters that would have been better left muddied. CP