The is rounding out its 19th season with the first professional American production of Frank Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Directed by Mark Jackson, the play is a wicked concoction of humor and horror, rendered at full, physical throttle. Which is exactly the way the young director likes it.
“I wanted to honor the comedic and the tragic elements of the play,” Jackson said in an interview a few days after opening night on June 10. “They need each other: it seems very funny to say a guy woke up and found he was a bug, but it’s also a horror.”
Drawing from the European adaption by directors David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, which moved Kafka’s 1915 novella to 1930‘s Nazi Germany, Jackson set the play in the 1950’s McCarthy era.
“It was an immediate thought," he said. "[The 1950’s] seemed like a direct connection for us, as Americans. But there’s a parallel at any time. Gregor and his problem could be anything that is an embarrassment to the accepted order of the time."
The production is full of movement and extremely physical, a Jackson signature.
“I am attracted to a physical way of performing—that’s just my way in,” he explained.
Living in Germany and training in Biomechanics under Gennadi Bogdanov conditioned Jackson for a vigorous approach to theater.
“German theater is intellectually rigorous and physically daring onstage,” he said. “Because directors are treated as artists there, it allows them to do different things. Here, the director is the midwife, who helps the actors and the playwrights deliver their babies. [German actors] feel free to ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’ and to throw their bodies into it.”
Metamorphosis required the actors to rehearse according to the rules of the set, a something’s-gone-wrong-with-this-picture home interior, mounted at a 30 degree angle. Jackson recalled the constant negotiation between safety and creativity — and a desire to avoid “being precious”, while still insuring the actors survived the process.
The bold approach has paid off, with positive reviews and an audience buzz Jackson is listening to.
“I pay close attention to many audiences over time and try to identify trends. I do read reviews. I haven’t ever changed anything because a critic said something, but I do look at the general ideas and that can bring about changes,” he said.
The Aurora is in the business of building, not simply presenting, new works. In addition to the mainstage season, it’s Global Age Project (GAP) awards four developing playwrights staged readings with professional directors and actors.
Although it did not develop directly out of GAP, Jackson will benefit from Artistic Director Tom Ross’s commitment to “presenting new and exciting voices for the stage.” Jackson’s Salomania, a world premiere commission, will close next year’s 20th anniversary season.
“I was pitching ideas to Tom that I thought were very 'Aurora' and he was very direct with me," said Jackson. "He told me he had five other directors who could do what I was pitching and said, 'You’re here to do the weird stuff.' And he was right: they’re classic stories, but they have a physical aspect.” Jackson's first show was Salome in 2006, based on the sensual tragedy by Oscar Wilde.
Salomania — a semi-sequel — was workshopped last fall following months of research about World War I and the main character, dancer Maud Allan. The play is likely to offer a kinesthetic, courageous challenge to the actors.
“For some people, the choreography is a real obstacle. That’s part of my job: to adapt what I do for them and hope they will adapt for me,” Jackson said.
Audiences can expect the director to engage. He plans to keep his ear open to feedback and seeks out opportunities for roundtable discussions about theater and art.
“What’s becoming more and more important is the conversation around a production,” he concluded. “It’s not what they think of it or whether they like it or not, but what they understand about it that excites and informs me.”
Metamorphosis runs through July 24th, with a week of performances recently added to the bill. Finalists for the 2012 GAP will be announced in December. To learn more about the Aurora Theatre Company or to order tickets, visit auroratheatre.org or call (510) 843-4822.