As the lights come up onstage, four actors dressed in black are positioned into one connected, crablike figure. They move in perfect sync with each other while two other actors, speaking in gravely growls, provide the creature’s voice from behind a screen.
The scene onstage at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco is a bit hard to describe — which is one reason cast members in the school’s production of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” laugh when people who haven’t seen the play ask “who plays the bug?”
“I take it for granted now,” said Ayelet Schrek, a 16-year-old member of the 17-person ensemble that left Aug. 11 for Scotland — to perform its production in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.
“But when I think about it,” Schrek added, “it’s not something you would expect off the top of your head, to have Gregor be comprised of all these different people — to have four bodies, two minds. It adds so much, makes the show slightly different every time.”
That’s just one of many nontraditional choices the theater company made in adapting the 1915 novella, in which Kafka’s protagonist is transformed into a cockroach. The JCHS version is a play-within-a-play; it is set at the beginning of World War II against the backdrop of the Warsaw Ghetto, where a small theater company decides to perform the play.
Though “The Metamorphosis” debuted in May, student cast members, crew and faculty continued to work on the show over the summer and now have taken the production to Edinburgh for the annual five-day celebration of film and theater with participants from all over the world.
The JCHS drama department was selected as one of the 57 drama programs from among thousands of applicants, and it is the first Jewish high school chosen to perform at the festival. The group will give four performances from Aug. 19 to 23.
“I just couldn’t be prouder,” said Dylan Russell, the play’s director and chair of visual and performing arts at JCHS. “This company has worked so hard, they’re so talented, and I’m so excited to be part of it — to get to share this with a wider audience.”
Each student individually raised $1,000 to put toward the cost of participation, and together they raised another $5,000. “Since the student company was asked to fundraise for their trip, they learned about how companies raise money for a show and some of what producing entails,” explained Russell.
At the festival, students will have 90 minutes to perform and just 15 minutes to put up and take down their props — just like the professional theater companies participating. Students also will do their own marketing, hitting the streets to gather audience members, handing out flyers and talking up the show to passersby on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Cast members said they were looking forward to showing off the results of a long and sometimes arduous writing and production process. Russell held auditions in the fall. Throughout the winter, she and the students worked with Word for Word, a Bay Area theater company that transforms short works of literature verbatim to the stage.
Together, they adapted Kafka’s work into a highly original production involving improvisation, creative casting choices — such as multiple actors simultaneously playing the role of one character — and more physical comedy than one might expect from a somewhat bleak narrative set against the impending Holocaust.
“When I first read the story, I thought ‘This is one of the darkest things I’ve ever read,’ ” said Schrek. “And then I realized as the process went on how much humor there really is, which I think is something beautiful. Within the despair, there’s this light.”
Aviva Herr-Welber, 17, shares the role of Gregor’s sister, Grete, with classmate Sophie Marinoff. Though the two actors move in tandem and recite their lines together for much of the play, in the third act Herr-Welber — in dark eye makeup and speaking in a more severe tone than the other “sister” — takes over the bulk of the role.
The shift mimics the arc of Grete, who at the outset of Kafka’s story is the only one sympathetic to Gregor’s condition. By the end of the play, she has grown exhausted and disgusted with him, wishing out loud that he would disappear.
“I didn’t anticipate the challenge of diving so deeply into the anger, and the way you would feel if something like this happened to you,” said Herr-Welber. “It definitely had an impact on me. It was hard to get out of even when I went home.”
She added that the splitting up of roles, along with the choice of World War II as a backdrop, leaves certain aspects of the play up to the viewer’s interpretation. “There are so many different ideas, so many different layers going on,” she said. “Even amongst ourselves, after working on it for so long, we still all have our own opinions about the meaning.”
For Uriel Sudikoff, who plays Kafka (as well as Gregor’s other “mind”), capturing the novelist’s conflicted passion proved a tall order. The 18-year-old, who graduated in the spring, said he and other students initially were “apprehensive” about the reaction they might get from audience members.
“There are some unorthodox aspects of this play — no other company has taken this gloss, in terms of the meaning of the play, with the Holocaust, so we didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But we’ve gotten amazing feedback so far.”
Each student said the play was the most collaborative production they’d been part of, from the script adaptation to the performance. “The way we share lines back and forth, we have to be in sync with each other,” Sudikoff said. “People in this company have a lot of imagination, and we’ve gotten very close.”
The result is anything but amateur: The students have gotten used to hearing that audience members can’t quite believe it’s a high school play. Often, the viewers can’t help but offer their own interpretations of the text.
“I know one of Ms. Russell’s goals with this play was to inspire dialogue, and that was definitely accomplished,” said Herr-Welber. “Not only do we still spend time talking about it, hashing through things, but you hear people coming out of the show exploring and discussing it. I know some people who decided to read the story after coming to see it.”
“I had someone tell me they were thinking about it for days afterward,” Schrek said. “That’s awesome, to be able to make people think. That’s the best you can hope for.”
Cover photo | john chiara