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Discovering 'Amerika'

In a new role as playwright, the ART's Gideon Lester finds himself in the shifting identities of a Kafka tale

CAMBRIDGE -- Gideon Lester is sitting in the American Repertory Theatre's basement rehearsal room at Zero Church Street, watching the director Dominique Serrand and his cast run through scenes from the ART's next production, which opens in previews tomorrow night. As the theater's associate artistic director and its dramaturg, Lester does this kind of work all the time: watching the actors, suggesting a line change, advising the director about diction and pace and tone. But this day is different.

For on this day Lester is not playing his usual role. This time, he's the playwright.

The play, ''Amerika, or the Disappearance," began as an adaptation of Franz Kafka's unfinished first novel, written in 1913. But Lester found himself making so many changes as he shaped the material for the stage that the credit now reads ''By Gideon Lester, from Franz Kafka's novel."

That metamorphosis is appropriate -- and not just because it's Kafka. Both the novel and the play are replete with transformations, reinventions, and deconstructions of identity. Under Serrand, whose Theatre de la Jeune Lune won a Tony this year for its innovative movement-based work, the play is shaping up as a richly layered, complex exploration in multiple media of a world that can only be called Kafkaesque, full of bizarre characters and dreamlike images. Actors from both Jeune Lune and the ART play several roles apiece in the story of a young immigrant's travels through a surreal ''Amerika," which includes such features as a bridge connecting New York and Boston.

And it was that sense of dislocation and transformation, along with finding it ''incredibly funny," Lester says, that drew him to Kafka's story in the first place. In the tale of young Karl, for all its grotesqueries and exaggerations, he found echoes and reflections of his own life.

''There are days when I feel as though what we're doing is a dance with Kafka, and Kafka is in the room," Lester says. ''And sometimes it feels like my play, very autobiographical."

At 32, Lester is well known as the personable, handsome, eloquent young British scholar who, when he was just 29, succeeded Robert Brustein as part of a three-member leadership team. (Or, as former ART board chairman Paul Buttenwieser puts it, ''Incredibly gifted . . . completely brilliant . . . incredibly charming. He's a little bit too good to be true.") With Robert Orchard and Robert Woodruff, Lester now runs the ART. ''Nothing is going to take me away from here in the short term," he says. ''I work for a place that is built on a dream of artistic freedom and a dream of artistic excellence."

In conversation, Lester has a knack for finding common ground, for making personal connections that illuminate and deepen the points he's trying to make. That hardly sounds like the naive young immigrant of ''Amerika." But look more closely, and Lester can make that connection, too.

''I'm only second-generation British," Lester says. His parents have their roots in Hungary, Poland, Russia -- ''all over" -- and they're Jewish, which in Britain means developing expertise in self-transformation, he says: ''We learn how to wear other people's clothes a lot of the time."

Beyond that, ''I've now lived outside Britain for the last 10 years. I have a great sense of displacement," Lester says. ''And in a way that's the central theme: how one finds a home, assimilation."

In moving ''Amerika" to the stage, Lester says, he has sought to dramatize Karl's displacement and search for identity by surrounding him with confusing characters who morph suddenly into someone else: The actor playing a German woman in one scene, say, becomes a French man in the next.

''You get a theatricalization of something that the novel is obsessed with, which is the construction and deconstruction of identity," he says, ''and the question: When you peel away the onion layers of how your identity is constructed, do you have anything left? And I believe that the novel's conclusion is no, you don't. You disappear."

Clearly, Lester is alert to the complications of the immigrant's identity, both as he constructs it and as others perceive it. His father, a prominent human-rights lawyer, is now a member of the House of Lords -- and, his son says with a touch of exasperated amusement, ''it's totally inescapable that when an American hears 'Lord Lester,' we become members of the aristocracy. And we're not." Within the family, he says, the idea of titles ''really became a game -- horrifying and fun."

That's appropriate to his view of British society, which he calls ''all a game, with very precise and extremely complex rules about who you talk to, how you talk to them, what you wear." His own upbringing gave him a chance to learn the rules at close hand.

''I had a sort of classic British privileged education," Lester says, first at the ancient school called Westminster and then at Oxford, but ''always on the outside." He remembers an early school experience in which ''we were asked to draw our family tree. Most of my classmates could trace their families back to the Norman Conquest, which was in 1066. And mine went back three generations."

Here, though, he's British. And even if that makes him laugh, he's not afraid to use it. ''There's a reason why my accent hasn't changed," he jokes. Of course, it's not just the accent that makes him a gifted fund-raiser, advocate, and administrator for the ART, as well as a writer, translator, adapter, and teacher. It's also his ability to slip, quickly and without apparent effort, from one role to the next.

Even at the rehearsal, he's playing multiple parts: He watches as the playwright, but he's also supervising a student dramaturg and entertaining a visiting board member. On a typical day, he may move from a budget meeting to a lunch with his students to a discussion of publicity for the next season, then on to another rehearsal or a cocktail party for donors or maybe, if he's lucky, a break at the gym or a dinner with his partner of six years, Thomas Sellar, who edits Theater magazine at Yale. But the transformations seem natural.

''My training is to be a chameleon -- my professional training," Lester says. As a dramaturg, ''you have to put your own ego aside and become attuned to the person you're working with."

That's something Lester is unusually good at, says Anne Bogart, who directed the ART's production of Marivaux's ''La Dispute," for which Lester was both translator and dramaturg. ''He's truly one of the best dramaturgs I've ever worked with," she says. ''What you actually have to have is a combination of enthusiasm, in the best sense of the word -- etymologically, it means 'filled with God' -- and also a lack of ownership. You have to be able to look at the work without attachment and to see it in a fresh way."

So perhaps it's ironic that ''Amerika," for all its connections with his own sense of shifting identity, is pushing him, for once, to stop looking at the work from multiple perspectives and to declare his own point of view.

''It's interesting to become the writer and have to assert a very strong artistic identity," Lester says. ''It's a muscle that I haven't exercised very much: to develop a very strong voice, to state something loudly and clearly, but at the same time be prepared to let everything go. Because we simply have no time to have a fight that's about ego."

That kind of letting go ''can sometimes be painful," he concedes. But then, as you might expect, he steps back and takes a larger view. ''It's always: 'What will work onstage?' "

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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