The word "Kafkaesque" is commonly misused, but most understand it to mean some mixture of complicated and unsettling.
And "Kafka's Metamorphosis: The Musical," at Auburn Public Theater this weekend and next, is indeed complicated and unsettling.
Matt Chiorini and Travis Newton's show is derived as much from the 1915 novella in its title as it is from the correspondence author Franz Kafka shared with his distant father. So it splices passages from "Metamorphosis" with Kafka's confessional words, which are spoken with both vulnerability and intellectual poise by Jack Rento. But if that's not complicated enough, his Kafka presents "Metamorphosis" as a musical within the show. He frequently breaks the fourth wall to communicate with the audience, disorienting it even further. Meanwhile, the "Metamorphosis" segments use black lights, shadow play and Rento's preternatural agility to achieve the, yes, unsettling mood of Kafka's most well-known work, in which salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find he's become an insect.
So, to be sure, "Kafka's Metamorphosis: The Musical" is Kafkaesque in those ways. But in another, it's not: It's really funny.
Chiorini, who also portrays patriarch Mr. Samsa and plays guitar in the show's band, filters Kafka's source material through a modern comedic sensibility. So the characters sometimes react to their absurd, century-old circumstances with the stammering, matter-of-fact syntax of today. When Rento's Kafka cracks a joke, he asks the band for a rimshot. When his Gregor scales the pipe framework of his bed with his new exoskeleton that fateful morning, he sings, "This sucks, just my luck, oh f--k!" When his Kafka surrenders the stage to another passage from "Metamorphosis," Chiorini, Meghan Lees (Mrs. Samsa) and Morgan Smith (Grete) openly quip how weird the author is while they set up the austere musical's few set pieces. It's Franz Kafka by way of Joss Whedon.
But not all the humor in the show results from that sensibility. In one monologue, Rento's Kafka delivers a series of jokes and even limericks with clever, subversive punchlines. The lyrics of Chiorini and Newton's songs share those qualities, and many are performed at such a speedy clip that I was glad the music stayed basic and piano-driven, save for some klezmer accordion for period color.
After Rento, Smith receives the most spotlight, both as Gregor's concerned sister and the temptress with the fur boa from "Metamorphosis." She skillfully plays both for laughs, too, and Chiorini and Lees join her and Rento for a puppet gag that highlights the show's home stretch. The musical is only an hour and 15 minutes, but the cast still stops at a few moments to let you know how close the end is. Amidst the complicated story and unsettling sights, they want you to see the way out. But you won't. You'll be too busy laughing and marveling at the best show to come to APT in some time.
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