In the first moments of “Metamorphosis,” someone says that Gregor Samsa “is not himself today.” That’s putting it mildly. Poor Gregor has been transformed overnight, for no reason and utterly without warning, into a human-sized insect.
The new Aurora Theatre production brings Franz Kafka’s revolutionary masterpiece to the stage with a decidedly different twist. Director Mark Jackson, using an adaptation by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson, gives the 1915 story an updated setting in 1950s suburban America.
It’s a surprisingly good fit. Kafka’s horrifying and mordantly funny fable about a man who suddenly finds himself shunned by society — and unrecognizable to himself — seems tailor-made for the post-World War II era of blacklists and bomb shelters, widespread conformity and cookie-cutter tract homes.
Jackson’s staging makes the point from the start. As the Samsa family — Mother (Madeline H.D. Brown), Father (Allen McKelvey) and sister Grete (Megan Trout) — gather for breakfast, they’re alarmed to find that Gregor’s still in bed, and that something about him is very different. But they’re less worried about the sudden change than they are about keeping it secret from their visitor, Mr. Stietl (Patrick Jones.)
As the ghastly reality of the situation hits home, each character has a different response. Grete wants to help Gregor. Father wants to keep him out of sight. Mother, a frozen smile on her face, is in denial.
Eventually, though, the truth refuses to be contained — even if it takes a gentleman caller (Jones, again, as Mr. Fischer) to bring it into the open.
Jackson’s production benefits from Nina Ball’s fantastic vertical set, Clyde Sheets’ eye-grabbing lighting, Christine Crook’s amusing costumes and Matthew Stines’ eerie sound design. And the cast is outstanding.
Crowther’s Gregor never loses his human shape, but he makes a very convincing bug as he skitters, jumps, perches and dangles from the chandelier; “Metamorphosis” is ultimately about “otherness” in all its forms, and Crowther captures that aspect brilliantly.
Trout is a study in conflicting emotions as she tries to repress her revulsion yet remain loyal to her brother. McKelvey’s conventional Father and Brown’s repressed Mother embody the ’50s mystique, and Jones reveals the nasty totalitarian underbelly beneath Fischer’s pompous exterior.
If there’s a flaw in the adaptation, it’s that we don’t see quite enough of Gregor’s inner anguish. Still, Jackson’s “Metamorphosis” gives audiences plenty to gasp over — and think about.
Where: Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes July 17
Tickets: $10 to $45
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org