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David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” Travels East to Explore Delusions of Gender

Non-spoiler alert: If you saw the original production of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly on Broadway in 1988, and you go into Julie Taymor’s new production at the Cort Theatre, don’t expect to see the same play. In fact, you may find yourself wishing the Cort had provided seat belts, because if your fondness for the original runs high, your feelings may be in for a very bumpy night. Not that Hwang’s provocative and probing play has lost any of its fascination in this extensive reworking: If anything, the explicitness with which Hwang has retooled his troubling story only enhances its intellectual richness. True, a little of the mystique of what used to be a tantalizing psychological romance has vanished, but in its place lie the political and sexual ramifications, now fully spelled out, that were always part of the story’s gripping resonance. And Taymor’s production, stark and harsh for all its lavishness, serves Hwang’s new take on his material with the same effectiveness John Dexter brought to the eerie, enclosed world of the original.

For that earlier production, the brilliant Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka created a miniature Forbidden City of sliding screens and moon gates that gave the conflicted lovers a magical refuge in which to play out their clandestine affair. Explanations were limited; the real-world intrusions of fact that disrupted and finally destroyed the idyll were kept to an unnerving minimum. We left impressed but still puzzled, with questions not wholly answered. At the Cort, mystery is kept to a minimum and all questions are answered often even before we’ve begun to formulate them. From the outset, the huge, swiveling gray panels of Paul Steinberg’s set tell us that the world of these mismatched lovers is a grim, dangerously unstable place in which no idyll ever goes undisrupted; romance withers visibly under the white-hot glare of Donald Holder’s lights.

M. Butterfly’s star-crossed lovers are a klutz and a courtesan: the French diplomat René Gallimard (Clive Owen) and the Chinese opera diva Song Liling (Jin Ha). An underling at the French Embassy in Peking, Gallimard is an unabashed romantic, clumsy with women, who has been smitten with Orientalist fantasies since he first saw Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at age twelve. (Allusions to the opera’s music and libretto permeate the play.) Trapped in a drab marriage of convenience to an older woman, Agnes (Enid Graham), he sees himself as a helpless drudge until he meets Song at a diplomatic reception. The two begin an intense friendship that blossoms into an affair: Gallimard is reluctant until Song explains that he is actually a woman who has been raised as a male from earliest childhood.

This improbable tale, which Gallimard buys (and which was not in the play’s original version), derives from the real-life person on which Hwang’s drama is based: Bernard Boursicot, an extremely young and very minor employee in the French Embassy, apparently continued to believe in his lover’s female identity for the duration of their relationship. The outré anatomical details of how his partner accomplished this deception, revealed at their trial, have now also found their way into Hwang’s script.

Hwang’s revision pulls his story out of the shadowy romantic twilight where it originally thrived into the harsh light of fact for two strong reasons. First, it brings his fictional tale closer to the actual case, giving Gallimard’s hard-to-swallow illusion a documentary grounding: Boursicot, who unlike his fictional avatar was apparently bisexual (he had male and female lovers throughout his life), continued to maintain that his Chinese partner was female until faced with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

This persistence in delusion gives Hwang the opportunity to open what might be called an intellectual second front in his drama, making Gallimard’s self-image the virile white man dominating the fragile Chinese lotus blossom a reflection on the whole history of Western attitudes toward Asia, with particular reference to the attitude which America brought to its disastrous intervention in Vietnam. That misadventure is doubly linked to M. Butterfly’s action: The quagmire we cavalierly waded into was a former French possession that France had abandoned to postcolonial chaos; and the classified documents that Gallimard passes to the Chinese in return for access to his lover often deal with American strategies and troop movements in Vietnam. (It’s unclear to what extent this aspect of the play meshes with historical fact, since Boursicot continued to pass classified documents to the Chinese for several years after American troops left Vietnam.)

In daring to divest M. Butterfly of its dream world, Hwang and Taymor have made its critique of the West both more openly caustic and somewhat more schematic than it originally was a romantic haze always breeds more ambiguity than a floodlight. But in many ways this is salutary, compelling audiences to think about the story’s resonances rather than drifting pleasantly away on them. (It also raises thoughts of a possible countertheme: Hasn’t the East, too, had its fascination with aspects of Western culture? One thinks of Kurosawa’s twin passions for Shakespeare and Ed McBain.)

Even in the part of the hapless Gallimard, Clive Owen exudes a measure of charm.

Taymor strives to compensate for the dissipation of the alluring haze with heightened image and spectacle. Though her cast is not appreciably larger than the original’s (eleven as opposed to ten), it gives the effect of a big, flamboyant musical rather than an intimate drama. When Gallimard, Song, or other characters are focused on as individuals, they’re often isolated in a small rectangle of light against the vast gray walls; in between such moments, the ensemble troops on as a seemingly vast chorus of diplomatic partygoers, Chinese opera performers, or, when the Cultural Revolution arrives, choreographed Red Guard marchers straight out of Madame Mao’s favorite work, The Red Detachment of Women. The lavish showiness, though impressive, is disorienting. It keeps moving us away from Gallimard’s passion, into the chaotic larger world where no individual’s passion counts for much in the anarchic scheme of things.

That widened context partly explains why Owen’s Gallimard often seems a hapless lost soul rather than a decisive one, either as diplomat or as lover. The revised text, too, makes him more openly naive and more of a bumbler than in the original. Luckily, Owen, with his long moose-jaw face and wearily hopeful eyes, can be sexy and charming even while portraying a hopeless doofus like this. Regrettably, the deck is stacked against him: Even the sexiest and most charming actor alive couldn’t make the reworked Gallimard of this no-nonsense world heroic in his delusion. Understandably, he steers clear of pathos, while Jin Ha, opposite him, eschews the tantalizing delicacy that, in the original, made B. D. Wong so fascinating, and John Lithgow’s starry-eyed adoration of him so heartbreakingly believable. The result has a distinct flavor of its own, drier and sharper than its predecessor.

Those who go in full of nostalgia for the earlier M. Butterfly may resent the change, but others may find it refreshing as well as startling. “Playgoers naturally murmur,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “when something that has always been pretty becomes painful; but the pain is good for them, good for the theatre, and good for the play.” He was talking about Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s interpretation of Ophelia’s mad scene  apparently one of the earliest realistic-psychological approaches to what had previously always been a daintily stylized version of female lunacy. I can’t say that M. Butterfly constitutes a received idea to the same extent as Hamlet, which leaves me of two minds about the change from a romance resonant with implications to a treatise in which those implications are fully spelled out. I miss the romance, with its teasing ambiguities, but as things are these days with China building up for a trade war (and simultaneously cracking down on free expression) while our crazy commander-in-chief and the equally crooked nutjob in Pyongyang menace each other with the nuclear option a treatise might serve us better.

M. Butterfly
Cort Theater
138 West 48th Street
212-239-6200
mbutterflybroadway.com

Through February 25

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LIFE A VIRGIN

Your first time should be special. With any luck, it will also involve lots of people, a big spectacle, and Brooke Shields. The First Time Fest is returning for a second year to make it happen for some promising new filmmakers. They’ll be given a forum to screen their debut features, with 10 movies competing for the grand prize: theatrical distribution. Last year, bigwigs like Martin Scorsese and Sofia Coppola showed up to support the fledglings. In addition to the aforementioned Shields, this year features Julie Taymor, Peter Bogdanovich, Slash, and our very own film editor, Alan Scherstuhl, all participating in a host of panels about how to get the ball, or rather, camera rolling on a filmmaking career. Don’t miss the “First Exposure” series, which screens the long-ago premiere works of Albert Maysles, Michael Moore, and others with the directors in person to reminisce.

Thursdays-Sundays, noon. Starts: April 3. Continues through April 6, 2014

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A BRONX TALE

You’ve admired this rangy, passionate woman, the holder of two Bessie awards, in Ralph Lemon’s shattering work at BAM, in her own Pent-Up: a revenge dance, in Young Jean Lee’s Lear at Soho Rep, and most recently in Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, under the umbrella of PS122’s COIL festival, Okwui Okpokwasili shares her Bronx Gothic, evoking, with words and movement, the sexual awakenings and misadventures of two 11-year-old Bronx girls. In development for two years and supported by local and international commissions, the piece is directed and designed by videographer Peter Born, Okpokwasili’s Yale classmate.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: Jan. 16. Continues through Feb. 1, 2014

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Bill Thrill: Julie Taymor Dazzles you into Shakespeare’s Web

If department stores announce a shortage of luxury bed linens, blame Julie Taymor. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, now playing at Theatre for a New Audience’s sleek and intimate space, countless sheets and pillows float, glide, romp, and slither. It’s one hell of a trousseau and likely the most dazzling Shakespeare we’ll see for several seasons.

After the Spider-Man debacle, it seems sensible that Taymor would return to the opulent, ingenious interpretations of the classics that made her name pre-Lion King. Her sheet-strewn Athenian forest is an awing blend of imperious fairies, charming young lovers, and Brooklyn-accented rubes. Strangely, it also teems with children costumed as Australian Aboriginals clutching didgeridoos. But you can’t puzzle too hard over any of these choices as the staging melds them into a somnolent wonder.

At times, the visual magnificence threatens to override the text. More than once I found myself thinking of Lear’s tart remark: Shakespeare “needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st.” But what’s so wrong with gorgeous? And most of the performers — particularly David Harewood’s Oberon, Tina Benko’s Titania, and Kathryn Hunter’s Puck — make much of the iambs as well as the outfits. This Dream is a splendid achievement. After the fitful fever of the last few years, Taymor can sleep well.

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Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark–The Tangled Web They Wove

Well, it opened. I saw it. It’s loud, and there’s a lot of it. It has good points and bad points; the latter outnumber the former, but not to the extent that turns an ordinary bad musical into a train wreck. It probably isn’t worth the vast amount its perpetrators spent, first to create it, and then to overhaul it. An evening at it probably isn’t worth what they’re charging for tickets, but that’s for you paying customers to decide. It does have high points—literally so, since its numerous aerial excursions, climaxing in a huge final combat over the audience’s heads, are its most exciting feature. (Love those semi-circular swoops around the balcony rail!)

Beyond that, very little need be said about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Foxwoods Theatre), at least not about the show itself. An ordinary bad musical is an ordinary bad musical; you can riffle through a dozen decades’ worth of Broadway reviews if you urgently require amusing comments of the sort critics have always made when a new work failed to meet the standard of what’s commonly called “a good show.” As Wilella Waldorf said about The Girl From Nantucket, the year I was born, “It lacks everything.”

That doesn’t make Spider-Man the sort of blood-freezing 12-car pileup that sends reviewers fleeing at intermission. When you do leave, at the end, you don’t feel, as you would at a true musicalamity, that you’ve had several precious hours unjustly removed from your life. Nor, unless you’re maniacally optimistic, will you feel that your life has been exhilaratingly enhanced, as you might after seeing a great musical. You’ll simply feel that you’ve seen Spider-Man, the musical, and that now you know, for better or worse, what the entire world has been fixating on for the past eight months.

I’m exaggerating, of course. Since Spider-Man started previews, the world has had numerous other fixations: earthquakes, tidal waves, nuclear meltdowns, tornadoes, wildfires, plus the insanely arrogant rich assaulting everything from workers’ rights to hotel chambermaids. In oppressed places like Libya, Syria, and Wisconsin, there are probably people too busy trying to stay alive even to notice that Spider-Man exists.

Still, the widespread attention it’s garnered has been astonishing, true proof that the American cultural myth most deeply embedded in the world’s mind is not the myth of the superhero or the frontiersman, but the notion that triumphing in a hit Broadway musical gives the ultimate in artistic credibility. While Spider-Man was undergoing its months of torment, accident, and delay, the media played it up as if the future, not only of Julie Taymor’s clout or U2’s royalty statements, but of all Western civilization, was hanging by a thread of Spidey’s web. Hooray, I guess, for the theater’s prestige.

Naturally, there’s a catch: The definition of triumph involved centers purely on fame and money. Artistic merit—the assumption that a Broadway musical would attract world attention by adding something imaginative and exciting to world culture—never really enters the picture. Web discussion of Spidey focused on the creators’ credits, not the substance of their achievements—what the late Jane Jacobs, in her intriguing final book, Dark Age Ahead, called “credentialing.” While Taymor, Spider-Man‘s original conceiver-director, was undergoing her well-reported travails with the production, commentators invariably cited her still-running 1997 Broadway success, The Lion King. Few noted the mixed response to her more recent, but noncommercial, works, like Grendel or the Met’s Magic Flute; most had probably never heard of her masterpiece, Juan Darién. In the media mind, only the money arena and celebrity (which equals money) exist.

Like any ordinary bad musical, Spider-Man offers some ancillary pleasures in between its lackluster songs and startlingly lame choreography. Some of George Tsypin’s tilting-skyscraper sets are eye-tickling; the multi-authored book has two amusing bits involving the Green Goblin’s struggle with electronic voicemail. As said Goblin, Patrick Page, his voice showing severe signs of wear, nonetheless seems to be having great fun. No doubt eight-year-olds with a few hundred bucks to spare will enjoy themselves. The rest of us can hope that somebody, celebrity or not, will shortly create a better musical.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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What’s Wrong With Broadway? It’s Not Just Spider-Man!

If the rocky saga of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has illuminated anything, it’s that creative obstinance can be a way more terrifying enemy than the Green Goblin. The musical had all the free help you could hope for from day one. Observers were nattering away about exactly what needed to be fixed in both acts, and then the critics jumped the gun and joined them by panning the thing en masse, giving their own detailed instructions as to how to make these singing and dancing arachnids more appealing.

So what did Julie Taymor‘s show do? It kept rounding up audience focus groups to figure out what needed to be worked on! And ignoring them! It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s denial! From the first preview, even my grandmother knew you had to trim the geek chorus and the shoe number, plus make the book more compelling and cohesive and the songs more memorably theatrical. But Taymor only made smallish changes en route to her own poignant exit, kicking and screaming on a flying rope that actually worked for a change.

That happened when producers decided to shutter in April and do a major overhaul, which at last sounded like what the script doctor ordered. I hope Spidey emerges flying—in fact, I hope it reopens at all—but it’ll be hard to dispel the sour sense that for way too long, this hero just didn’t listen.

And yet, if you want to know the truth, the problem with Broadway is usually that it listens too hard. The financial stakes of putting on a show are so outrageously high these days that most musicals that make it to New York are rehashed, processed, micromanaged pieces of work with familiar themes, songs, and faces aiming for your purse strings. They practically ask for your comments before they even start rehearsals.

For relative financial safety, it’s common to go with revivals (Anything Goes, How to Succeed), jukebox bio-musicals (Baby, It’s You), and adaptations of well-known, kitschy movies (Sister Act, Priscilla, etc.) because such properties provide an instant comfort level designed to propel you to both applaud and buy the mug in the lobby.

And then there’s the name game.

If it’s a new play, get a big name (Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Frances McDormand). If it’s an old play, get a big name (Vanessa Redgrave, Kiefer Sutherland, Ben Stiller, Al Pacino). If it’s a new name (Nina Arianda), get an old play and add some TV stars and/or Tony winners. And if it’s British, make sure it has already won a slew of awards and then prepare to lose money anyway.

The lack of imagination is sometimes astounding. Certain classics are revived so frequently that by the time you’ve filed your Gypsy and La Cage Playbills, there’s already another one, each revival scaled down to suit the economic demands of the moment to the tune of “How marvelously revisionist!”

Dramas keep cannonballing back, too, like The Best Man, which got a not-great Times review when it was last revived, 11 years ago. Not surprisingly, this time, they’re pumping up the name game. James Earl Jones has been cast as the president, which is both an interesting multiculti choice and a sly nod to current events. Besides, Jones is the go-to man for breathing life into oldies like On Golden Pond, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Driving Miss Daisy. His name—which used to introduce blazing new works—has been stamped on almost as many revivals as Sondheim, who, by the way, hasn’t gotten a new musical—except for revues—mounted on Broadway since 1994. For that reason alone, Times Square should officially be declared a disaster zone.

Fortunately, The Best Man is a well-crafted potboiler, centering on gay whispers hovering over a political campaign. But in the also-returning The Children’s Hour, the gay murmurs come out and take on horrifying impact when a little girl uses “lesbian” as an epithet against a perfectly, you know, normal teacher. Some might argue that with gay bullying and suicides in the air, maybe this kind of anxiety piece is more relevant than ever. But it’s sad that the defiant revival of Angels in America—a play that hurls fireballs against oppression—stays Off-Broadway, while Hour heads to the main stage, wallowing in fear and gay panic. Why? The latter stars big names.

Of course, Off-Broadway has become big-bucks-based, too, but it still manages to foster more projects outside the center. Two ambitious musicals, The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, made a splash there before moving uptown this season and getting crushed, the tourists not clear on what they were getting and why. (When people started protesting that Scottsboro was racist, you knew it was time to go back to the jukebox genre.)

So Broadway ends up getting the shows it deserves. I’m not saying good stuff can’t emerge out of the restrictions; some of this year’s play revivals have been superb and there are way more original musicals than last season, including the riotous Book of Mormon. But for every work with surprise and wonder, there are two that would have been much better with dinner.

I guess the only way to fully accept Broadway is as a museum for work that’s pre-approved and neatly framed, and I’m actually OK with that. I’ve stopped fighting. I just sit back and enjoy, knowing that even if the three star drag queens aren’t on the marquee, at least they’ll be onstage, acting out my favorite Australian movie of 1994 in a watered-down mode that still merits a giggle and an “Aww!” And they won’t get hurt.

musto@villagevoice.com

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‘Spider-Man’ Dish From Its Biggest Hater

The show that redefines “Break a leg,” Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been very publicly beset by injuries, weird buzz, daunting delays, and an unattractive marquee for some time now. To make sure it has eight legs to stand on, the mega-musical’s opening was recently pushed to March 15—and this time, they mean it.

But Spidey’s biggest enemy might not be itself—or the Green Goblin—it’s the New York Post‘s theater reporter Michael Riedel (the co-host of TV’s Theater Talk with Susan Haskins), who has long sprayed a big can of journalistic Raid at director/co–book writer Julie Taymor‘s seemingly untrounceable confidence. Riedel took time from his deep-dish duties to talk arachnophobia issues with me:

Me: Hi, Michael. Do you want this show to succeed?

Riedel: Not particularly. I saw it, and I think it sucks.

Me: But it was in previews!

Riedel: Nothing can save this show. I don’t care if you bring Rodgers & Hammerstein and Joseph Stein back from the dead. And Alan Jay Lerner, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, too.

Me: That good, huh? How about if you bring back Neil Simon?

Riedel: I’ll leave that joke to you.

Me: What do you feel is fundamentally wrong with this thing? (In previews, that is.)

Riedel: It’s ineptly written on every level. Julie Taymor has proven to us that she’s not a writer. This is where her megalo-mania has taken over.

Me: So her healthy ego puts her in a constant state of “hakuna matada”?

Riedel: She may have written The Tempest!

Me: Judging from those reviews, maybe she shouldn’t take credit for that, either.

Riedel: She’s got this little guy called Glen Berger. He looks like one of her hand puppets. That’s her little writing sidekick. They’re not bringing in a book writer or doing much work on the creative side of the show, but concentrating on the ending they don’t have. She feels what they have is pretty good!

Me: So they’re not seeking help?

Riedel: Some agents had floated a few names—”My client might be able to help the show”—but the show declined. I don’t think it’s good for the industry to have a bad show. It’s good to have exciting shows in all the right ways—economically and artistically.

Me: You’ve said that Mexican money is behind Spider-Man. You weren’t hinting at drug cartels, were you?

Riedel: No. There’s money from all over the world.

Me: Do you feel the show was doomed—according to you—from conception? Superhero musicals rarely seem to fly, as it were.

Riedel: I don’t think any show is doomed based on its concept. I never think the problem is the source material, but the execution. Julie was allowed to run wild with finances, the safety issues, the special effects, and her imagination. I’m all for artists being able to roam, but, practically speaking, you have to have someone to take care of things. If you look at most successful shows, behind them is a very strong producer.

Me: Bring David Merrick back from the dead! How is your approach to this show different from that of another writer, Patrick Healy, who seems almost as obsessed with it?

Riedel: Patrick is with The New York Times, where they have to plod along the fair and balanced path. I make no secret of my adversarial relationship with the show, and I’m having a jolly old time. I am a columnist, he’s an old-fashioned news reporter. I pick battles. I pick winners and losers, and I never look back. I never doubt my position. If this show is still running five years from now, I’ll have no memory of this interview! [Laughs.]

Me: Will you get comps despite all you’ve written?

Riedel: If they give me comps, all bets are off. They’ll have a hold on me. They can wrap me up in wires and slam me into a wall. I’ll pay. I’m just going to materialize and not tell them I’m coming.

Me: Well, it’s probably worth the money. Hasn’t fulminating against this show raised your profile?

Riedel: I got a fair amount of media attention and I didn’t have to break any bones to do so. [Injured actor] Christopher Tierney had to break three bones to get on the Today Show. I just broke the show.

Me: Well, I’m glad it’s helping some-body’s career!

Your Past Is Showing

Terrified that the current theater season is falling from a giant platform onto your head and killing you (though you were already halfway deceased from boredom)? Well, digging into the theatrical past proved a little revivifying this week. At Alice Tully Hall, there was a Collegiate Chorale concert version of 1938’s Knickerbocker Holiday, with Kelli O’Hara showing off her beautiful pipes and Victor Garber scoring on an autumnal “September Song.” The show happens to start with Washington Irving giving up gossip writing because “a man can’t go forever manufacturing fiddle-faddle for the transient amusement of the witless.” Please! Works for me!

Downtown, The New York Idea is a David Auburn reworking of a 1906 marital romp that, like one character says of another, is a decent dose of sherbet before the next course. And the next course turned out to be—yes—Spider-Man when someone who’d seen it gave me a ring on the ding, ready to spill. “Tell me something positive to counter all the other stuff,” I pleaded. “The stunts are amazing,” she complied. “You really can’t believe your eyes.” And what about that big shoe-shopping number that’s already legendary? “It comes out of nowhere and it’s completely silly!” she said. It is? That sounds right up my Tin Pan Alley!

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Julie Taymor’s Other Tempest

In Julie Taymor’s hands, Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” becomes a listless feminist parable. The duchess Prospera (Helen Mirren) has been forced into exile, stripped of wealth and position by her scheming brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper), who’s branded her a witch by using her prodigious smarts against her. But her maligned gifts roar back with a vengeance. From the isolated island where she and her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) found both refuge and the slave Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), Prospera works her talent for magic to bring her foes to her for comeuppance. The visuals are alternately inspired and horrible (dated CGI), never approaching the giddy anachronism of Taymor’s cinematic debut, Titus (another Shakespeare adaptation). Mirren’s fierce intelligence illuminates Prospera, and Ben Whishaw’s Ariel has a skittish puppy quality, but Hounsou’s awful line readings flatten the impact of his casting, which was seemingly meant to underscore the colonial tensions in Caliban’s tale (for instance, the slave is plied with booze by white simpletons he mistakes for gods). Seventies-rock aesthetics run wild—Russell Brand, as Trinculo, in tight striped pants and a flowing scarf, looks like a Led Zeppelin refugee; Ariel, an androgyne with small breasts, evokes gender-fuck glam; and Reeve Carney’s Ferdinand comes off like a hipster doing retro. For all that, the film lacks a pulse. There’s sound and fury, but the result is more drizzle than tempest.

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Metamorphosis Does Kafka by Way of Iceland

Julie Taymor might have saved a lot of people a lot of money had she swung through Iceland any time recently. That’s where Gísli Örn Gardarsson Gisli and the wily Vesturport Theatre (along with London’s Lyric Hammersmith) made wall walking and other critter-like feats look … not easy, exactly, but bracingly real in their eye-catching 2006 adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, currently on display at BAM.

Borkur Jonsson’s ingenious set includes a conventional sitting room, but Gregor Samsa’s upstairs bedroom has been toppled forward 90 degrees: Picture the usual fourth-wall convention, only here you’re looking through the ceiling rather than a side wall. Using nothing more than strategically placed footholds and a few fixed pieces of furniture, Gardarsson—who also co-directed and co-adapted with David Farr—scuttles around with skill and the appropriate amount of reticence. (Hey, this cockroach thing is new to him.)

The family’s comedic interludes feel a bit forced, as does an update to 1930s Europe, complete with talk of “clearing vermin from our society.” But nearly is all forgiven by the time Gardarsson and Farr contrast Gregor’s literally inhuman fate with that of the remaining Samsa brood. The stagecraft, effective as it is (and augmented by a score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), is always subordinate to Kafka’s narrative—a lesson unto itself. ERIC GRODE

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Athlete+Carney

The nice-boy Brits in Athlete put out a couple of cool records in the early ’00s that expertly combined Coldplay-style melodrama with Blur-like pop smarts; their latest, last year’s Black Swan, is handsome but kind of humdrum. The dude who fronts L.A.-based openers Carney is playing Spiderman in U2 and Julie Taymor’s upcoming Broadway musical.

Mon., May 31, 9 p.m., 2010