"Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka's story about a man who wakes up to discover he is a giant insect, is almost as frightening and disturbing as what is enacted on the stage of the Barrymore Theater, where talented actors wake to discover they are in a Steven Berkoff play.
Kafka tells the grotesque story of Gregor Samsa in such careful detail that the reader is suspended nervously between reality and nightmare. His story is as disquieting as the paintings of Magritte, in which objects as simple as a comb or a street lamp, portrayed with photographic meticulousness, evoke a deeper, darker reality.
Beyond the absurd comedy of a hard-working, conscientious salesman trying to adjust to life as an insect, there is great pathos in Samsa's desire not to let down the family he has been supporting. Kafka never lets the human dimension disappear, however surreal the situation.
Berkoff, on the other hand, never lets the human dimension appear at all. In his own plays, such as "Greek" and "Kvetch," and in his recent, laughable production of "Coriolanus" at the Public Theater, Berkoff only sees characters as cartoons.
He has them move with robotlike precision. Every gesture is exaggerated. Presumably this stylization is intended to move us toward something grander, more evocative than conventional realism. Berkoff does achieve striking visual images with dramatic lighting and silhouettes, but the overall effect is like chloroform on butterflies. It helps you appreciate details but at the cost of rigidity and lifelessness.
What is amusing about the current production is its location: Broadway. You would expect to see Berkoff's work on E. Fourth St., which is certainly where it belongs. But if Berkoff is predictably anti-establishment (his depiction of Samsa's family is Marxist enough to be acceptable in the ideologically harsh atmosphere of Prague today, which has nothing to do with Kafka's Prague), he is not entirely averse to old-fashioned materialism.
When Berkoff directed this play in Paris, it starred the film director Roman Polanski. Here it stars the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. What talents, you may ask, do these artists have in common? The answer is, obviously, none. The casting is not about talent. It's about box office.
Berkoff's Samsa doesn't require much acting or, considering who plays it here, dancing. It's mainly a feat of athleticism. The set is essentially a kind of jungle gym around which Samsa must climb and from which he must suspend himself.
For the most part the role could be done by any actor of reasonable physical agility.
What Baryshnikov contributes, apart from box-office appeal, is some remarkable hand movements, which suggest the delicacy of an insect. Berkoff has allowed him approximately 30 seconds of actual human responses, two moments in which he crumples poetically with a bewildered smile as poignant as Petrushka's. Also, he has a natural look of innocence that serves Samsa well.
The other actors, who work with great intensity, are (alas) only allowed to be caricatures. The Samsas, even portrayed by such fine actors as Rene Auberjonois and Laura Esterman, are no different from the grating family in Berkoff's "Kvetch."
The action is accompanied by a percussive score that further distances us from the material. As an attempt to convey Kafka's world, Berkoff's adaptation is tiresome. As a piece of merchandising, though, it's a triumph.
Man into beetle - the monstrous metaphor of an altered reality, the ultimate nightmare of an incomprehensible destiny.
One can see the fearful attraction Kafka's terrible fable "Metamorphosis" has for 20th-century man - and why, at least in part, Mikhail Baryshnikov embraced its paranoid horrors for his theatrical debut.
The prime virtue of Steven Berkoff's play, "Metamorphosis," which he has adapted from the Franz Kafka story and which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater last night, is its emphasis on the normality of its hero - normality, of course, being relative.
With a reedy voice, plaintive with accent, a pinched frame and steel-rimmed glasses, Mikhail Baryshnikov looks the very model of a Central European traveling salesman, the very model of Kafka's hero, Gregor Samsa.
Stiff and slightly petulant, his hair combed nerdishly into a central parting, he has the slightly neurotic manner of one to whom injustice will rarely come as a surprise.
The role, calling upon very specific gymnastic and mimetic capabilities as well as everything else, could be tailor-made for Baryshnikov, even though the style of the acting is almost light-years away from ballet.
But of all the dancers I have ever seen, Baryshnikov is the one who acts. Other great dancers emote emblematically, create character through the flair of personality supported by the quick image of a gesture. Baryshnikov has always acted - his songs may have been without words, but the emphasis on the precise and the articulate was always present. Twenty years ago, I recall him first in the solo "Vestris" that Leonid Jacobson created for him, which was a perfect miniature of the most superlative and demanding acting.
Perhaps the surprise here in this dramatic debut is in the expressiveness of Baryshnikov's voice, as well as the clarity of its projection.
The Berkoff play itself is an expressionist impression of the Kafka original - with little of the finite detail that makes the Kafka so chilling and moving.
The whole concept of a man waking up in an insect's body is best left to a reader's imagination; to materialize it on stage, whether one literally shows a big bug (as, in effect, Kafka would suggest) or has Gregor unchanged and only bug-like through the various eyes of the play (which is Berkoff's choice), is somehow to trivialize the idea.
What Berkoff does do, by leaving it to the actor to suggest the bug simply by mime and gesture, is to provide a showily glittering role for anyone playing Gregor, a part originally taken, at London's Round House in 1969, by Berkoff himself, although in the later London revival he played the father.
In a jungle-gym-like setting, rather reminiscent of the setting Rouben Ter-Arutunian devised for Glen Tetley's "Pierrot Lunaire" - a ballet particularly popular in London at the time of the work's first production - Berkoff stylizes the story into a series of tableaux.
With its black, white and gray color scheme and its bold exaggeration, all familiar from the director's recent staging of "Coriolanus," its gesticulations often cued and punctuated by Larry Spivack's percussive score, the effect is of cartoonlike simplicity, a long way removed from the style of Kafka.
All the characters are caricatured - quite unlike the original story, and much less effective as a consequence - particularly the figures of the Chief Clerk and the Georg Groscz-style sketch of the Lodger.
As a theater-piece, it works perfectly well as a concept, but seems curiously uninvolving. We watch, fascinated by the sheer cleverness of the way Berkoff manages to suggest, with the most apt insectile movements, his giant bug, and then charts the family's attitudes, from horror, to acceptance, to repugnance.
It is very well done, with the movements orchestrated perfectly, but somehow the full power of the situation eludes this stage transference.
Just consider Kafka's awesome opening sentence: "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
This is not the Hollywood sci-fi world of "The Fly" - this is an ultimate metaphor of a nameless horror, the horror of powerlessness in the face of undeserved, irrational and incomprehensible disaster, a peculiarly 20th-century horror that we have actually had to name Kafkaesque.
And this, to me, is what this adaptation fails to catch.
However, whatever objections one may have to Berkoff as an adaptor, his work here as director is fascinating and unquestionably effective.
Gregor's family, with the wonderful Rene Auberjonois as the bullying, blow-hard father, Laura Esterman as the whining mother, and Madeleine Potter as the more or less pragmatic sister, are beautifully conveyed, and the performances of Mitch Kreindel as the appalling functionary from Gregor's office, and T.J. Myers as the gross lodger the family takes in to make ends meet, have the same bold vitality.
What makes the evening worthwhile, however, is the virtuoso performance of Baryshnikov, who very quietly holds the stage and audience in thrall from his first entrance to the end.
His frustrated, grubby presence has a genuinely human pathos to it, a terrible pent-up pain and scream of agony, that goes outside the scope of the play's stiff confines and talks directly to Kafka and us.
It's hard to guess who will suffer most at Steven Berkoff's theatrical version of ''Metamorphosis'': devotees of Franz Kafka, whose story is distorted into Marxist kitsch by this adaptation, or fans of Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose stage debut as a dramatic actor, however dignified, amounts to little more than a sideshow to the loud circus surrounding him. But at least one constituency, albeit a smaller one, should be happy - the Berkoff cult. The director doesn't even have to appear in the flesh to upstage Kafka and Mr. Baryshnikov throughout this piece's interminable (and intermissionless) 100 minutes.
Actually, Mr. Berkoff does have a surrogate on stage at the Barrymore, in the form of the show's true leading man, the actor Rene Auberjonois. With his greased-back hair and grizzly, scowling mien, Mr. Auberjonois barks out the role of Gregor Samsa's father as if he were doing an impersonation of Mr. Berkoff's impersonation of Hitler on the recent television mini-series ''War and Remembrance.'' And in that performance lies the message of this ''Metamorphosis.'' In Mr. Berkoff's retelling, Gregor Samsa, the commercial traveler who awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a gigantic dung beetle, is no longer a lost, alienated soul consumed by the terror of living. He is instead the martyred victim of a greedy, parasitic bourgeois society symbolized by his father. Let Kafka worry about man's eternal, complex private war with himself and his family; Mr. Berkoff reduces ''Metamorphosis'' to a class struggle between the bug and the pigs.
Both in its ideology and in its once avant-garde Expressionist theatrical style, this ''Metamorphosis'' is very much a product of the late 1960's (when it was first produced in London, with Mr. Berkoff as Gregor). The stark setting is a gray void on which has been erected a spare, skeletal jungle gym that fans out like a spider's legs. While delivering a condensed choral recitation of Kafka's text, Gregor's father, mother (Laura Esterman) and sister (Madeleine Potter) perform mimed routines front and center, most of which reveal them to be grotesquely materialistic vulgarians. ''Cash! . . . Cigars! . . . Shoes!'' they yell at the prospect of any new income. At mealtime, they chomp away with a slobbering relish that might offend the residents of ''Animal Farm.''
Mr. Baryshnikov, always wearing the workaday suit and rimless spectacles of the pre-metamorphosed Gregor, is never allowed to leave the stage, but neither is he often given the opportunity to dominate the action. He is usually sequestered in the shadowy background, on the cagelike platform that represents Gregor's room. There he performs contortionist stunts, all executed with exquisite grace and precision, that simulate the beetle's perambulations: hanging upside down from the ceiling, whirring his legs in helpless panic, masticating his food, scuttling across the floor. When Mr. Baryshnikov must speak, his accent gives ''Metamorphosis'' one of its few connections to the frayed Old World that spawned Kafka, but the emotional tone of his acting is no less facetious than that of his fellow players.
There is nothing embarrassing about Mr. Baryshnikov's work here. The real question is why he picked a stage assignment that, for all its High Culture trappings, makes no more demands on his great talent than would the title role of ''Legs Diamond.'' Only once does ''Metamorphosis'' allow Mr. Baryshnikov to reveal the deep artistic soul that informs his gestural poetry. When Mr. Auberjonois throws the apple that penetrates Gregor's carapace, we not only see a dancer's delicate rendition of an insect's slow, crumpled fall to the ground but we also find, in the innocence of Mr. Baryshnikov's baffled expression, a man's far steeper descent into the clutches of mortality.
The rest of the evening's acting is so consistently clownish that the performers cannot be held accountable. Outrageous caricature is what Mr. Berkoff needs to make his polemical point, and, since that point requires that representatives of commerce be still more disgusting than the Samsa family, the crude portrayals of the chief clerk and the single, porky lodger (in lieu of the three in Kafka) are unwatchably gross. His strident ideological scheme notwithstanding, however, Mr. Berkoff can waffle for sentimental effect. Gregor's mother and sister, though previously presented as interchangeably heartless, weep their way through the beetle's death rattles.
In Mr. Berkoff's vibrant staging of ''Coriolanus,'' seen at the New York Shakespeare Festival this season, his martial theatrical techniques were well matched to a play dealing with politics, war and civic behavior. Those same techniques are like jackboots when stamped upon Kafka's intimate journey into one man's soul. Larry Spivack, who provided the tingling electronic score for ''Coriolanus,'' fills ''Metamorphosis'' with percussion and piano poundings suitable for a silent horror movie. Mr. Berkoff's typically hyperbolic lighting scheme emerges as more florid than Brechtian: when the Samsa family imagines happier times (in slow motion, no less), grays and blacks give way to gooey floods of blue and yellow.
Such grand theatrical gestures are anathema to fiction whose power derives precisely from its author's ability to cloak terror within the dry, homely details of humdrum daily life. As written by Kafka, ''Metamorphosis'' is ''realism pure and simple, so realistic as to be hard to bear,'' writes the biographer Ernst Pawel in a wise program essay whose nearly every sentence rebukes the production on stage. Mr. Berkoff's bombastic ''Metamorphosis'' is hard to bear not because it locks us into Gregor Samsa's nightmare, but because it cavalierly crushes two sensitive artists, like so many insects, underfoot.