Imagination

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kafka-on-the-shore.jpgAt the beginning of the audience talkback right after the performance of Kafka on the Shore, Frank Galati’s radiant adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel, that I attended, someone rightly asked Steppenwolf Theater Associate Artistic Director, David New, “So could you tell us what this means?”. I am an avid Murakami fan, and when I read “Kafka” several years ago, I found it compelling, poetic, vividly etched like one of those rare dreams that give you a sense of triumph and boundless energy when you wake up. I also found it elusive, evanescent, intellectually challenging, full of metaphors and references that were almost, at times, indecipherable. It was a great example of a truly metaphysical novel, with the twist of Japanese magical realism- quintessential Murakami. So I was really curious to see how Galati would take the qualities that were great on the page and translate them into equally great theater. Unlike “After the Quake”, the collection of short stories that Galati also dramatized a couple of Steppenwolf seasons ago, I thought “Kafka” – with its reordering of time and space, its fusing of characters points of view such that you wonder whether one was an extension, a doppelganger, or a reverse mirror image of the other, it’s surreal imagery- was more permeable, less able to be taken into a literal context , something that is, most of the time, important in live theater. I think Kafka on the Shore, the play, is terrific, which I enjoyed a lot, but it is not for all theatrical tastes and sensibilities (people who are heavily left-brained, or who have pretty conventional concepts around what theater is, would be terribly frustrated). I admire Steppenwolf for courageously selecting this play as their first play of the new season, despite the risk that it will leave audiences cold and alienated, since it does set the right tone for the theater’s focus on the theme of “imagination” (something that I think we will all be better off if we had some more of; there were a LOT of people who left their rations at home during the performance I attended).

Kafka on the Shore weaves two “journey” stories: 15 year old Kafka leaves home and goes on a journey (in the book, it is to search for his mother and sister who left years earlier, a point that isn’t very clearly made in the play) which brings him to a small Japanese town with a memorial library run by a mysterious middle-aged woman; elderly Mr. Nakata, who is a little “dense” in the head but who can talk to cats, goes on a journey to look for a magic stone. That’s the best way I can describe the non-plot: additionally, there are talking cats, strange encounters with Johnnie Walker and Col. Sanders (both memorably played by Francis Guinan), a clinically-delivered handjob, some did-he-or-did-he-not-time-travel?-business, a Shinto temple break-in, ghost soldiers, and a blush of incest. But the plot is a non-conversation-starter; what is important in Murakami’s works, which Galati has faithfully realized, are the emotions, images, and remembrances that they evoke. There are two things about the book that I think Galati nails, and both have to do with the fact that Murakami is a very Japanese writer, with a point of view that has been shaped by his cultural and historical contexts. I can relate strongly to this theme as an Asian person: there is a very strong dose of fatalism running through the story. Kafka and Nakata go on their journeys, not because they choose to do so, but because they are fated to do so, in order to get to a pre-determined endpoint (for the teenager, self-discovery and confidence to live a “normal” life, for the older man, death). The characters cannot reverse what happens to them, which makes the episode with the ghost soldiers, who chose to remain in the otherworldly world of the forest, instead of going back to the real world and fighting in World War II with their cohorts, so striking. Fatalism, in East Asian culture, absolves personal responsibility. Which leads to the second great point of the book that the play evokes: Murakami is also a very politically and socially-conscious writer (the stories in “After the Quake” were written as a response to what he felt were the psychological and social damage wrought by the 1995 Kyoto earthquake on Japanese society), and Kafka on the Shore has a political dimension. Murakami very insightfully tackles the still-prevalent ambivalence of Japanese society on its culpability for World War II atrocities (a topic that is still a sore point with many of the Asian countries who suffered under Japanese occupation, including China, and my native country, the Philippines). The concept of personal responsibility, and how grey and ambiguous it could be, is exceptionally sketched out in the various episodes: the class outing in which the students seemed to have been gassed by American fighter planes; Johnnie Walker’s rationale for killing the cats; Ms. Seiki’s plea to Kafka to return to the real world. Great stuff to think about.

The production values are excellent, as always, although, as Christopher Piatt points out in his review, I also wish there is more music integrated into the production (there’s a hauntingly ethereal song, entitled “Kafka on the Shore”, but that’s it). The cast is strong: aside from Guinan, I think Lisa Tejero is mesmerizing as Ms. Saeki, although it’s really hard to single any one out, because, as it is with Steppenwolf productions, the acting company is truly an ensemble, effectively complementing each other. For those of you who truly value creativity in the theater, please get your tickets now!

Kafka on the Shore is on the Steppenwolf Theater Main Stage, 1650 N. Halsted st., until November 16.

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