Malleus review: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, an audio drama adapted by Erik Bauersfeld (English)

Malleus Maleficarum German and English Audio Column

4 out of 10

A flawed curiosity, the Mind’s Eye production of Kafka’s surreal, tragicomic tale of the salesman-turned-cockroach is notable for a striking voice effect and an outstanding performance by Erik Bauersfeld. Listening to him, you’ll believe a cockroach can talk and shudder with disgust and sympathy. It’s a shame the rest of the cast doesn’t measure up.

Photo of Franz Kafka as a young man

From the short story “Die Verwandlung” by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915.

Adapted and directed by: Erik Bauersfeld

The Mind’s Eye, 1982.

Language: English.

Availability: Out of print and difficult to find. Try Ebay, Amazon.com sellers, or Abebooks.

Cassette, 40 minutes.

What will they say when they see me?
- Gregor Samsa

Well, what can they say? If they get upset then it’s no longer your problem, if they take it calmly then all you have to worry about is catching the 8 o’clock train.
- the Voice

Now that the company and its works have all but vanished, it’s hard to believe there was a time in the 1980s when The Mind’s Eye was one of America’s biggest audio drama producers. They had mainstream distribution through chains like Waldenbooks and catalogs like Wireless, and they published an expansive, ambitious catalog of adaptations of classic stories. Their flagship title was a 12 cassette production of The Lord of the Rings, which aired on NPR. Since the BBC drama wasn’t available Stateside for years, the Mind’s Eye version was the only game in town for American Tolkien-lovers. This was very fortunate for The Mind’s Eye, because their low-rent edition of the fantasy epic was much inferior to the BBC’s. (But if the idea of Sam Gamgee sounding like Smurfette appeals, by all means seek it out. Yes, they actually cast Lucille Bliss, the voice of Smurfette, as Sam.) Unfortunately, the same can be said about most of their output. The Mind’s Eye routinely produced mediocre work marked by low calibre performances.

Although I was already underwhelmed by the Mind’s Eye back in the 1980′s, I became intrigued by their decision to adapt Franz Kafka’s classic tale, The Metamorphosis. The story of salesman Gregor Samsa waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach seemed an unlikely choice for audio drama. So much of the story depends on narration, after all, since the protagonist is more fixated on family and duty than describing his strange condition.

But if anyone could pull it off, it would be writer / director / actor Erik Bauersfeld, who produced many adaptations of strange tales for his Black Mass radio series. Bauersfeld has had an extensive career in audio drama, anchored by a long tenure from 1962 to 2004 with Pacifica Radio’s KPFA in Berkeley, California. Much of his radio work is frustratingly difficult to get a hold of, since many of his works have never been published. Given my own interests in the German scene, I’m particularly intrigued by a crossover German / American series that he spearheaded called the H?rspiel/USA Project. (If anyone knows how to obtain copies, please let me know.) Most would probably recognize Bauersfeld for voicing Jabba the Hutt’s toadie Bib Fortuna and Arabic-amphibian Admiral Ackbar in the Star Wars films. Apparently Bauersfeld was also the first voice to be recorded for Yoda. ?(Bauersfeld has since informed me that although he was recorded for Yoda, a role he enjoyed because the character was a philosopher, Frank Oz was recorded first. ?I gather Bauersfeld’s version was more sage and less comic.)

Bauersfeld has worked closely with some of the best in the audio business, including sound design legend Randy Thom. Outside of his own work, Bauersfeld is notable for mentoring a young Tom Lopez (“Meatball Fulton” of ZBS fame). See Roger Gregg’s NATF interview with Lopez for more on the ZBS director’s relationship with Bauersfeld. Hats off to Bauersfeld for that. If only more elder statesmen of audio drama would follow his example and encourage proteges; too many seem content to whine narcissistically about the low quality of young writers and the dire future of the field. Holding the occasional “master class” is fine, but nothing beats sustained mentoring.

With a pedigree like that (and this bio is much abbreviated), you would expect Bauersfeld to turn in an excellent performance as Gregor Samsa. And he does. His nervous, hesitant voice captures Samsa’s guilt, self-effacement, and Kafkaesque anxieties about being the sole provider for his ungrateful family. Interestingly, Samsa is a composite character in this production. The sagely British Bernard Mayes plays “The Voice”, a blend of conscience, omniscient narrator, and interlocutor who accompanies Samsa throughout the play. In addition to providing description “the Voice” converses directly with Samsa, who takes it for granted. Purists might scoff, but “the Voice” proves to be an elegant solution to traditional narration. In fact, Bauersfeld and Mayes’ interactions are easily the highlight of the drama. The conversing personae effectively take us inside Samsa’s mind as he muddles through his new situation.

The third element in bringing Gregor Samsa to audio life is the remarkable effect used to process Bauersfeld’s voice, giving it a bizarre, chittering echo. Creating effective and truly unique “creature voices” is a surprisingly subtle art. For novices, lowering / raising pitches or adding a metallic reverb is enough to make something sound monstrous, but these tired devices generally produce homogeneous results. Managing to find that sweet spot between keeping an actor’s voice understandable and giving it a truly unique, alien quality is a difficult feat. The Metamorphosis manages it handily: Bauersfeld’s insectile Samsa sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, at once repulsive and sympathetic.

Bauersfeld’s performance is the best thing going for this production. Unfortunately, things go rapidly downhill once the rest of the cast appears. Kafka’s tragicomic, surreal story presents a significant challenge for dramatic interpretation. Should it be played straight? As a horror piece? As a black comedy? The Mind’s Eye players opted to treat it as a melodrama. This works to a degree for Robert Elross, who manages to wring some rough comedy out of Samsa’s overbearing father. Kenna Hunt, Beth Sweeney, and Priscilla Alden fare less well. Hunt overacts every line as Gregor’s stressed out mother, and sister Grete’s (Sweeney) histrionic fits are forced and exaggerated. Alden oddly chose to give the maid a comically heavy German accent, even though the entire story presumably takes place in Germany and the rest of the cast speaks standard English. Alden’s character plays to the stereotype of Germans being obsessed with order and cleanliness (believe me, it’s no stereotype), and it’s awkward and heavy-handed. Frankly, the poor quality of the acting had me convinced I was listening to community theater sunday players. I was wrong, but that doesn’t change the fact that the professional supporting cast turns in a sloppy, amateurish performance.

Bauersfeld and Mayes bring across some of the pathos and dark humor of Kafka’s melancholy tale, but as soon as the drama steps beyond the salesman’s lonely room into the lives of his dysfunctional family, the dysfunctional cast turns it into farce. A flawed curiosity, The Metamorphosis might be worth a listen for Bauersfeld’s stand-out portrayal of Samsa if you can find an old copy in your library or get it cheap.

Next: Fred Morsell brings a classic speech to life in his rendition of Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Negro.” (English) Tune in for the Malleus review of a true American classic written by one of the country’s greatest orators.