Late existentialist writer Franz Kafka turned Gregor Samsa, the main character in his 1915 novella The Metamorphosis into a monstrous insect. Nearly a century later, Taiwanese theater veteran Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) becomes the bug, as well as a bird and all the female characters in Kafka’s story.
Metamorphosis (蛻變), a recent production of Wu’s Contemporary Legend Theater (當代傳奇劇場) that premiered earlier this year at UK’s Edinburgh International Festival, sees the actor-dramatist in a solo performance.
Fusing traditions of the East and West has always been Wu’s forte. The troupe’s repertoire comprises adapted European classics such as The Tempest and Macbeth by Shakespeare and a number of Greek tragedies including Medea and The Oresteia, among other works based on modern literature and traditional Beijing opera.
In King Lear, Wu carried out a solo tour-de-force, depicting multiple characters simultaneously and wowing sold out theaters worldwide. He will perform the same physically and emotionally-demanding act in Metamorphosis, in which he morphs from a man to a bug, to a woman and a bird. The show returns to Taiwan’s National Theater in December.
KAFKA AND WOMEN
Wu said at a recent press event that he read many of Kafka’s novels — not just The Metamorphosis — to learn more about him. He found the most inspiration in Kafka’s love letters.
“I saw who Kafka really was from the love letters he wrote to his girlfriends, where he revealed a more sensitive personality,” Wu said.
Wu examines this other face of Kafka in Love, one of the six scenes that make up Metamorphosis, where he changes into a woman.
“In the novels, Kafka gives us a strong character. In his love letters, however, we see how he perceives women, the tone he uses to speak with women … It shows another side of him. It is a pity if I leave that out of my play,” Wu told the Taipei Times.
In Love, Wu wears a rosy two-piece traditional Chinese dress with floral print and full make-up, fitting his feet into a pair of 3-inch stilts to achieve a feminine look.
Wu said that imitating a woman and a bug are equally challenging. “As you know, the bug in Kafka’s book has nothing to do with any natural insect. It is a monster created by a human. After brainstorming with Lai Hsuen-wu (賴宣吾), we remodeled the Kao (靠) — a kind of armor in Beijing opera — to build the costume,” he added. Lai, as the show’s costume designer, planned several striking looks for Wu, including one that requires Wu to sing in a white and tight-fitting bodysuit with a face inked on his forehead.
Although it is an adaptation, Metamorphosis follows no linear storyline or plot. Wu called the scenes his “six dreams,” in which he delivers Kafka’s thinking in Eastern-style theatrical language and sings the lyrics written by author Chang Da-chun (張大春), adding a surreal dimension to the original narration.
Wu believes that reinventing tradition and innovating are the responsibility of today’s artists.
“[You] cross disciplines and mix match different genres until the boundaries blur, until you can’t really tell what’s Eastern and Western anymore,” he said.