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Kafka  Mark Jackson takes on 'Metamorphosis'

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into ..." Right, that's the opening of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," the unobtrusive 1915 short story that metamorphosed into one of the most influential tales of the 20th century.

As often as it has inspired novels, plays and films, though, "Metamorphosis" has a spotty history onstage or screen on its own. English actor-playwright Steven Berkoff's 1969 play ruled the boards for a few decades. An acrobatic Icelandic-English version - by director David Farr and actor Gísli Örn Gardarsson - has been driving critics and audiences wild since its 2006 London opening.

That Vestursport-Lyric Hammersmith production had a brief, highly praised run in New York as well. Now Aurora Theatre is staging the play's first American production, directed by Mark Jackson, no slouch at striking adaptations of his own. We asked him about the project midway through rehearsals.

Q: How did this come about?

A: Well, Tom Ross (Aurora artistic director) and I went back and forth over many months looking at scripts and at one point he suggested "Metamorphosis." I'd been familiar with Steven Berkoff's stage adaptation - I've been a big Berkoff fan for many years - so I went back and reread it and it felt a little cold to me. But I remembered that a colleague, Dara Yazdani, had directed this adaptation as a class project when he was a student at San Francisco State. So I asked him about it, and he passed on the script to me and I liked it immediately.

What I liked about it more than Berkoff's was that it has more of Kafka's particular commingled mix of humor and horror. And the characters are very heightened theatrically but quite human. It was the first time I'd ever felt anything for Gregor, and I was also very interested in that in a way the main character seems to be his sister, Grete. She goes through what in my mind is a more harrowing transformation than Gregor's into a bug. I didn't expect that.

I told Tom about it. He also liked it right away. So here we are.

Q: This adaptation shows Gregor in his room and the family in the living room at the same time, sort of a split-screen effect.

A: Yes, split scene. It's a constant in the piece.

Q: What about the set? They tilted Gregor's room so that the floor was the back wall, as if you were looking at it from the ceiling.

A: Yes, and the floor of the upper level - which is technically a wall of the room - was made of trampolines. It was practically a circus setup. They have a lot of circus training, that group. That kind of thing would be impossible on the Aurora's Thrust Stage. You have to solve the problem of making that guy be a kind of bug that climbs the walls.

Nina Ball, the set designer, and I went around and around, looking at different solutions. At one point, we were talking about putting him in a harness, but that was too cumbersome. But she came up with an elegant solution. It's hard to describe in words, but it allows everyone to get a good view of him and still lets him crawl around on the different surfaces.

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/06/08/PKBU1JP90O.DTL#ixzz1P5w7Kq8h