Kafka on the Shore

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Editorial Review

‘Kafka’s’ visual bounty is marred by uneven acting
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, February 6, 2013

“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.

PREVIEW: A shared dream state plays out onstage
By Maura Judkis
Friday, February 1, 2013

Think you had a weird dream last night? It’s probably nothing compared to the one playing out in Spooky Action Theater’s “Kafka on the Shore,” which features a teenage runaway named Kafka, Colonel Sanders, Johnnie Walker, a maybe-prostitute, UFOs and a talking cat. The play, adapted from the novel by Haruki Murakami, dips between the conscious and subconscious mind, the past and the near-present, the spirit world and reality.

“If your subconscious turns out to be a shared experience with other people in theater, you’re all going to a place that’s like a dream world, and you’re all feeling it together,” says artistic director Richard Heinrich. “How does that feel? And then [you’re] walking out of the theater thinking, ‘I was having the most incredible dream, and everyone was dreaming it with me.’ ”

Yes, “Kafka on the Shore” is a challenging (but humorous!) work, raising more questions than answers.

“It’s an unusual play, and it has some pleasures that are unusual,” says director Rebecca Holderness.

“It takes a while to get your bearings,” Heinrich adds.

As with many adaptations, fans of the book by the critically acclaimed Japanese author may not see eye-to-eye with the stage version by Frank Galati. But Holderness decided not to read the book to better represent members of the audience who haven’t read it.

“It was interesting for me because I’m not a Murakami fan, so I came to the play with a pretty fresh, clean perspective,” she says. “It strikes me as a hero’s journey, a young man’s coming-of-age story.”

The story switches between 15-year-old Kafka, who runs away from home to escape an Oedipal prophesy, and Nakata, an old man searching for a talking cat. With its spirit visitors and elements of the supernatural, the play imbues contemporary figures, like Colonel Sanders, with ancient meaning. The belief that spirits are around us is a teaching of the Shinto religion.

Though Holderness avoided the book, Heinrich became a Murakami fan. “I was taken with this piece,” he says.

Heinrich also was eager to cast so many Asian and Asian American actors, a group he says are underrepresented in the theater world. Nearly every role that calls for an Asian actor has been filled by one. And the cast has discussed how their family histories play into their roles.

To help the audience distinguish between the real and spiritual worlds, the actors who play spirits learned a different physical vocabulary than the characters in real life.

“I like the spirit worlds better because they’re a little more active,” Holderness says. “Spirit characters might operate with different kinds of rules, like body use and stage choreography.”

It sounds complicated, but Heinrich says it’s actually easier to play in the fantasy world.

“The things in the real world -- with all this undercurrent of spirits or the parallel world or fantasy -- that’s actually harder to play, because you have to maintain the literal world but give a feel that there’s something else going on somewhere,” he says. “That’s tough. It’s much more fun to just be a cat.”