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"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
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.
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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