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Proving once again that a big star and an adaptation of a classic literary work that everyone has heard of but not necessarily read will sell the house out every time, Mikhail Baryshnikov appeared for a limited run in another sort of farce, a stage version of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis (directed by Steven Berkoff at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre). Almost anything Baryshnikov does onstage (except speak) is compelling, even hanging upside down from a cage of metal pipes or lying on his back twitching his hands and feet. But what has any of it to do with Kafka?

When Kafka wrote Metamorphosis he begged his publisher not to illustrate Gregor Samsa's transformation into an insect. Instead, the cover of the original edition showed the much more frightening image of a door opening into darkness. Berkoff has for the most part removed the narrator, so that Samsa speaks. Instead of a soul in torment, we get a man who is victimized by the greedy bourgeois family he supports, waking up one morning to find himself turned into a bug. Berkoff has turned Kafka's powerful metaphor into whining and dining.

The stage is bare except for three black stools, with a cube made of steel poles suspended in the background. The characters enter as silhouettes (the actors are dressed in various shades of black, gray and white). The mother (Laura Esterman), father (Rend Auberjonois) and sister (Madeleine Potter) remain mostly downstage where we see them eating, arguing and belching, while Baryshnikov creeps around in the back and hangs from the steel poles. Movements are highly stylized and coordinated with the plunks and pings of Larry Spivack's score.

The play (which was first produced in the late 1960s in London with Berkoff himself as Gregor Samsa) resembles a high school production of Brecht. The characters are all caricatures (the family is straight out of The Seven Deadly Sins). The lighting, effectively stark most of the time, turns all dreamy blue, like something from Oklahoma!, for flashbacks to happier times.

While Kafka's story works as told in the matter-of-fact tone of the narrator, Baryshnikov's high-pitched musings on his predicament carry no weight. The piece has no dramatic tension, and makes its one-and-a-half hours seem very long indeed. I'd rather read the comic book.

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Title Annotation:Ethyl Barrymore Theatre, New York
Author:Hodgson, Moira
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Apr 17, 1989
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