How a Stark Kafka Fable Works on Broadway. THEATER: REVIEW

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METAMORPHOSIS Play by Steven Berkoff, adapted from a story by Franz Kafka. Directed by Mr. Berkoff. Starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. TWENTY years after its London premi`ere, which was followed by productions elsewhere, Franz Kafka's ``Metamorphosis'' comes to Broadway in a starkly affecting production, adapted by Steven Berkoff and starring a major international ballet star. In his debut as a stage actor, Mikhail Baryshnikov gives the kind of performance that haunts the spectator long after the lights have gone down at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

``Metamorphosis'' casts Mr. Baryshnikov as Gregor Samsa, the drudging, bespectacled salesman for a cloth manufacturer, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a large beetle. The remainder of the play concerns Gregor's struggle to maintain his humanity while those around him react to the progress of his grotesquely changed state.

Gregor's father (Ren'e Auberjonois) is immediately impatient and hostile as he tries to drive Gregor back into his room with a large stick and later pelts him with apples. The women of the household are far more sensitive to the inexplicable situation. With maternal instincts, Gregor's mother (Laura Esterman) clings to the fact that he is, after all, her son. Greta Samsa (Madeline Potter) offers sisterly devotion as she undertakes to feed and care for her brother, until she finds the situation impossible.

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Gregor's desperate identity crisis intensifies not only because of his deteriorating physical state. For while he can understand all that is said by those around him, he soon finds that he is reduced to squeaks and can no longer communicate on a verbal level. The play lasts 95 minutes (without intermission) but pursues a full tragic course. In remaining faithful to his inspiration, Mr. Berkoff has created a stage work that might be described as realistic surrealism. He even presents dream sequences within the nightmare.

Dispensing with certain incidental characters, the adapter-director follows the story's main outlines. But whereas the Kafka original was written in a prose of unadorned simplicity, Berkoff uses theatrical artifice of various kinds in translating the words on the page to the action on the stage. Movements are frequently stylized. The text is sometimes spoken chorally. The mood is enhanced by composer-performer Larry Spivack's score, which ranges from the delicately melodic to the percussive. The lighting, back-lighting, silhouettes, and other effects supervised by Brian Nason are frequently startling. Jacques Schmidt designed the period costumes.

And then there is the setting itself. Scenic supervisor Duke Durfee has provided a pipe-iron framework fronted by three metal stools. The arrangement encages the action even as it provides the star with the jungle-gym apparatus for his overhead clambering. While never losing touch with the young man's pathetic humanity, Baryshnikov physicalizes Gregor's torments with supple contortions. What Berkoff described in a recent interview as Baryshnikov's ``articulate body'' seems no less eloquent than is his balleticism as a dancer. The performance at the Barrymore represents a metamorphosis in more than the Kafkan sense.

A fine supporting cast completes the emotional equation: Mr. Auberjonois as the blustering Samsa senior; Miss Esterman as his distraught wife; and Miss Potter as the tenderly concerned Greta, who holds out almost to the last. But gratitude to their faithful breadwinner diminishes until it disappears. With Gregor's death, the house cheerfully plans to celebrate its new freedom with a family outing. Along the way, the progress of events has been briefly interrupted by Gregor's hard-nosed Employer (Mitch Kriendel) and a Lodger (T.J. Meyers) whose enraged departure follows a surprise encounter with Gregor.

``Metamorphosis'' is a natural for subjective speculation. But it can also be accepted on its immediate terms as a tragic fantasy adapted by Berkoff, the sympathetic observer, and explored by Baryshnikov, the performer emerging into a new stage of artistry as he goes to both the horror and the heart of the matter.

``Metamorphosis'' will suspend performances after May 6 to permit Baryshnikov to fulfill a commitment and will resume June 12-July 29.

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