“This is starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie or something!” a character exclaims in Spooky Action Theater’s “Kafka on the Shore.” There is, certainly, a swashbuckling adventure element in this tale by Haruki Murakami, adapted for the stage by Frank Galati. Audiences watching the evocative, if occasionally sluggish, Spooky Action production, directed by Rebecca Holderness, might reach for other movie comparisons, too.
Certain tableaux bask in film noir lighting, and dangerous dames stalk by with smoldering glances, like figures from “The Big Sleep.” A horror-flick intensity and blood-red light grip a scene whose eerie villain is engaged in torture and the extraction of souls. The sinuous image of a kimono-clad dancer, wielding fans as an intoning voice describes a sex scene, might have been borrowed from an art-house movie.
Yet film images are two-dimensional, and what Holderness has done particularly well in this production is find the resonance in three-dimensional space. Making use of foreground and background on the deep Spooky Action stage, aided by translucent shoji-style screens and varied poetic lighting (Brooke Robbins designed the set; Zachary A. Dalton and Kyle Grant devised the lighting), she creates an environment that is part dreamscape, part Philip Marlowe stamping grounds, part teased-out painted scroll.
Holderness made similarly artful use of space and imagery in “Einstein’s Dreams,” seen at Spooky Action in 2011. That show riffed mysteriously on the theories of Albert Einstein; here, the enigmas derive from a 2002 novel by Murakami, known for fiction that fuses absurdist fantasy with hard-boiled-detective-story templates and the flavors of contemporary cosmopolitan Japan. The 15-year-old title character of “Kafka on the Shore” may or may not be reliving the experience of Oedipus as he adapts to life as a runaway. Meanwhile, an elderly man named Nakata is searching for a mythic stone, after having survived an eerie incident of mass amnesia during World War II. Also prowling around is a demonic presence who has borrowed the look of the whiskey icon Johnnie Walker.
Were the performers embodying all these characters as skillful as Holderness and her designers (including composer/sound designer David Crandall, who supplies spooky whistlings and other atmospherics), “Kafka on the Shore” might be a thrilling meditation on loss, desire, memory and the instability of the self. Unfortunately, the acting is uneven.
On the positive side, Steve Lee is poised and engaging as a truck driver caught up in Nakata’s quest (the actor also slinks around winningly as a pair of talking cats), and Tuyet Thi Pham is aptly prim as Oshima, a library staffer with a secret. MiRan Powell channels the allure of Miss Saeki, a dignified femme fatale, and Steve Beall radiates delightful comic creepiness as Johnnie Walker, who later morphs into KFC’s Colonel Sanders.
But Michael Wong, who plays Kafka, doesn’t look comfortable onstage, and Al Twanmo hasn’t figured out how to suggest Nakata’s slow-wittedness without actually making the character’s response times slow. These and a few other less-polished performances add slackness to what is already a leisurely play. (Galati, a Tony-winning director and adapter, crammed a generous portion of the novel’s sprawling plot into his script.) The stylized movement of Dane Figueroa Edidi, dancing around as Kafka’s spirit guide Crow, is nice, but it doesn’t speed the show up. (Sara Jane Palmer designed Crow’s goth-style outfit, as well as the other character-appropriate costumes.)
Still, you have to admire Spooky Action, which is less than a decade old, for taking on such an ambitious project. And you have to be grateful that Holderness is around to supply visual richness spiced with a hint of Tinseltown mystique.
Wren is a freelance writer.
adapted by Frank Galati from Haruki Murakami’s novel. Directed by Rebecca Holderness; properties design, Deb Crerie; assistant director, Kristy Simmons. With Julia Nakamoto, Jennifer Knight, Sarah Taurchini, Jon Jon Johnson and Wonsup Chang. Two and a half hours. Through Feb. 24 at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th St. NW. 202-248-0301. www.spookyaction.org.