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Flash Review, 3-24: Alienation
"Metamorphosis" Fails to Move at La MaMa

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

In a decidedly odd juxtaposition, the two performers who portray Gregor Samsa's cockroach seem more at home in their bug body than the acting company seems in the Club at La MaMa e.t.c., where Cati Blanche and George Bennett's adaptation of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" opened Thursday.

The good news is that Blanche and Bennett undergo a subtle but thoroughly convincing metaphysical fusing from the moment choreographer Blanche, as the cockroach essence, grafts her nimble body onto the bulkier Bennett, gradually subsuming his Gregor. The first time I saw a segment of this, in a showcase at 550 Broadway about a year ago, I was reminded of very early Pilobolus. Specifically, an ancient video of the boys when they were just a couple of years out of Dartmouth, and the four of them galumphed around the streets of New York and a field in Connecticut as a putative 'pede. That was charming. The cockroach body/soul constructed by Blanche and Bennett isn't charming. It's horrific.

Even as she is transforming his very nature to that of the cockroach, and clinging to his body, the physical miracle Blanche pulls off is that she appears to be responding to her partner's body, following its rolls and reacting to and expressing its reactions. As when Gregor's mother tries to remove from his room a favorite painting that he clings to as the last vestige of his vanishing humanity; while it's he that rushes to stop her, it's Blanche that, legs around his waist, rears her body in front of his in threatening reaction. She is outside and around him and latched to him, but most scarily, she is gradually creeping inside him, signaled early on when he rejects some milk and bread left by his sister and announces he'd prefer a nice glass feces, thank you.

Blanche is on from the moment her conniving, writhing fingers and ankles first appear behind the headpost of Gregor's bed until the moment he, devastated by the effect of his metamorphosis on his family, in effect battles her to the death and they both go belly up. Her conviction clearly effects Bennett, who starts rather tepidly and tentatively, even rushing and swallowing his lines, but grows more and more pathetic (That's a compliment!) once she leeches onto him.

There's one other star turn here: Reyna Kahan, who creates three distinct physicalities, all of them servants, but very different in their bearing and pacing. They even look like different actresses.

With the others, tho--and sometimes with the group entity, as directed by Jorji Knickrem --there seems to be a deficit of pride. Pride in the work they're performing and, also, in the house in which they're presenting it. We have talked a lot, you and I, over the past few weeks of the under-valued relationship of house to work and to audience experience. (See Flash Review 1, 2-28: Squonk Shrunk, and Flash Review 3-8: Breathless for the Joyce.) La MaMa has a rich history of performance innovation, and I'd think those spirits of innovators past would have inspired this company with a more apparent reverence of the space. But it doesn't happen.

The text of "Metamorphosis," as sharply adapted by Bennett and Blanche, is on so many levels about alienation: Gregor's alienation from his work; his, pre-cockroach, alienation from his mother; his mother's alienation from his father and her daughter; Gregor's eventual alienation from his human body when the cockroach takes over; his final alienation from his entire family, including the sister who was once so devoted to him and vice versa; and his ultimate alienation from the cockroach as he wrests himself free of her by starving himself to death. What's odd here is that the performers themselves--not the characters, but the actors--seem alienated from each other, not cohering as a group. They also seem to be alienated from the space and, on the night I went, the audience. Not completely; it's just that they seem to be holding back, from each other, the house, and us. Understand: The club at La MaMa is just that, a clubbish space where you sit at cocktail lounge-type tables. It's a ready set-up for a welcoming theater experience. It's already an environment that emanates warmth, even more so when La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart rings her bell before curtain and welcomes you to her home.

But the performers, overall, did not extend that spirit of welcome. Their spirits and stories didn't reach, as it were, over the footlights. They neither fully absorbed the native hospitality of the space, making it their home, nor extended a like hospitality to the audience, bringing them into their home.

A play can be about alienation without alienating its audience. I think of the Moscow Art Theater's production of "The Three Sisters," seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a couple of seasons back. From the moment the curtain rose, I believed I was in that aristocratic family's home out on the steppes. I felt their ennui and pain! (Side note: This even though they spoke in Russian. Another oddity last night was that except for Blanche's cockroachy screeches, the accents were inconsistent. Bennett's hinted at Eastern Europe, while Stacy Chbosky, as his sister Greti, was strictly American.)

While I was impressed with Blanche and Bennett's physical achievement, and Blanche succeeded at times in giving me the creeps, I was ultimately not moved by Gregor's story, nor by his family's trauma at his transformation. By the end of the evening, I was left strangely cold. And slightly alienated. Not out of empathy with Gregor's alienation, but because I didn't feel the ensemble was truly reaching out. They didn't touch me. And they didn't feel, to me, entirely comfortable in the space. Again, by the end, Blanche and Bennett had me convinced they inhabited one body, but the company as a whole did not really inhabit the particular theater in its intimate entirety--nor our souls, failing to deliver that blessed epiphanal moment when the characters' stories become our own.

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