Monday, June 22, 2015

Strange Journeys: Kafka on the Shore and Shining City

Kafka on the Shore is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel. (Photo: Takahiro Watanabe)

Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore, which I caught during its brief stop in London at the Barbican (it will perform at the Lincoln Center Festival in July), is an unconventional example of East-West translation. Frank Galati adapted Haruki Murakami’s 2002 magic-realist novel for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company seven years ago; the Ninagawa Company has returned it to the Japanese (Shunsuke Hiratsuka did the translation). If this cultural back-and-forth is a little disorienting, that effect seems perfectly appropriate to a stage version of Murakami’s haunting, dreamlike work. Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura (played in the Ninagawa production by Nino Furuhata), who is under an Oedipal curse, runs away from his father, a famous artist, and winds up working at a small private library in Takamatsu. The head librarian, a reclusive figure named Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa) still lost in mourning over the long-ago death of her lover, may or may not be Kafka’s long-absent mother. (Since Murakami is working on an ambiguous, oneiric level, the question of Miss Saeki’s relationship to Kafka doesn’t have a realist answer.)

Kafka on the Shore is a fairy tale in which the protagonist undergoes a double journey because, in Murakami’s words, “When you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you step into the one inside you.” This is, of course, the experience of any fairy-tale hero. Kafka has a number of guide figures to help him along the way, including Oshima (Naohito Fujiki), a woman living as a gay man, who invites him into the community of the library, and a young woman named Sakura (Anne Suzuki) whom he meets on a bus en route to Takamatsu. He also has two alter egos. One, Crow (Hayato Kakizawa), is the voice of his inner strength and courage, who keeps reminding him that he’s “the toughest fifteen-year-old on the planet” and can handle the emotional challenges of the journey. (Kafka, the name the protagonist has chosen for himself, means “crow” in Czech.) Another, with whom he never actually crosses paths, is an odd, childlike man named Nakata (Katsumi Kiba), who, as a result of an other-worldly affliction during the Second World War, lost the ability to read and to retain all but the simplest information. But he can talk to cats, so he makes a modest living tracking down lost ones. When his quest for one leads him to the doorstep of a serial cat killer who calls himself Johnnie Walker (Masato Shinkawa), Nakata begins to act, unknowingly, as a kind of surrogate for Kafka. Nakata has a helper, too, a truck driver named Hoshino (Tsutomu Takahashi) who behaves like another sort of archetypal fairy-tale character, the ordinary, earthy man whom circumstance leads to perform with a heroic grandeur he would never have suspected himself capable of (like Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings).

Cats, and Katsumi Kiba, in Kafka on the Shore (Photo:Alastair Muir)
Adapting this complicated narrative, Galati is remarkably faithful to the book – up to a point. He isn’t much of a dramatist (which was also my response to his highly praised Steppenwolf adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath); he doesn’t make dramatic choices about what material to retain and what to leave out. So there are chunks of prose lifted straight from Murakami – like letters from the schoolteacher about the fateful attack on her students during a field trip that left Nakata (and none of the other children) permanently damaged and Kafka’s descriptions of his bedtime ritual – that you can’t believe he didn’t omit. An English-speaking audience has to spend a lot of time reading the supertitles at the sides of the stage; since I’d just read the book I found I could get away with skipping a lot of them and focusing on the stage pictures, but for most of my fellow audience members it was rather like following a tennis match. On the other hand, Sakura’s role is given such short shrift that she barely functions in the story, and Hoshino’s is summarily abbreviated after Nakata passes out of it. You get the sense that Galati wrote and wrote and then, sometime in the second act, realized that he couldn’t possibly put the whole novel on the stage without making the play impossibly lengthy so he just started dropping episodes at random.

The production by Ninagawa, who just celebrated his eightieth birthday, is gorgeous. The set by Tsukasa Nakagoshi, lit stunningly by Motoi Hattori, is a series of glass boxes, open at the front, that localize the action and are shifted around the stage by stage hands dressed in black and masked, in traditional Asian style (that is, they are symbolically invisible). At the beginning, the boxes glide around the stage, each enclosing a fragment of the narrative – like Hoshino’s truck and Miss Saeki as a young singer in an evening gown (“Kafka on the Shore” is the name of the ballad she made famous) – that an audience unfamiliar with the novel would find tantalizingly suggestive and mysterious. Much as I loved looking at those boxes, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to make of the visual concept, and the staging within and outside them is weirdly static. Still, the three-hour-and-fifteen-minute performance is continually absorbing, the actors are very fine (especially, I think, Kiba as Nakata and Fujiki as Oshima, two performers who convey different but equally intense kinds of warmth), and there are images you can imagine staying with you forever and possibly returning in dreams. The felines Nakata interacts with are played by actors in furry costumes designed by Ayako Maeda; one of them stands upright at one point and towers over the diminutive Kiba. This is charming and magical. But when Nakata is face to face with the evil Johnnie Walker, who stores the heads of his victims in his freezer, the captives Nakata has to rescue are cat-size props, so that Kiba can lift them tenderly out of Walker’s bag and cradle them for a moment before removing them from danger. (This scene really knocks you out.) The problems I had with the production, like the ones I had with the book – mostly the flatness of Murakami’s prose, which could, of course, stem from the translation – seem less significant when you think back on it and find that it’s woven a spell on you that, weeks later, you’re still under.

Wilbur Edwin Henry in the Barrington Stage Company's production of Shining City.

The summer theatre season in the Berkshires gets a hell of a kick-start with Barrington Stage Company’s gripping production of Shining City. This beautiful four-hander by the great Irish playwright Conor McPherson keeps you in a state of continual surprise, literally until the play’s final image. It’s not even clear from the opening scene that the protagonist isn’t the middle-aged recent widower, John, who has come to see a therapist because he believes his home is haunted by his wife’s ghost, but the therapist himself, Ian, an ex-priest who, in the second scene, informs his girl friend, Neasa (the mother of his baby girl) that their relationship is over. McPherson alternates three Ian-John scenes with two scenes that focus on Ian’s tortuous and turbulent journey of self-discovery. John’s confession about the essential collapse of his marriage in the months before his wife’s death in a car accident, with its shockingly human transformations of character, shines a light on Ian’s own story. McPherson may be the most eloquent chronicler of despair in the modern theatre since Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett, and like them his tone is sometimes funny. (Bardic flights of despair with a comic razor’s edge are also, of course, distinctly in the Irish tradition.)

On Broadway in 2006, Shining City was directed by Robert Falls and starred Brian F. O’Byrne, Oliver Platt and Martha Plimpton, and it was startlingly good; Platt, unexpectedly cast as the wounded, grieving, guilt-ridden John, was breathtaking. Christopher Innvar’s mounting for Barrington Stage doesn’t lose any of the text’s complexity or shortchange the tricky, compelling rhythms of the language, which sit right on the cusp of realism and stylization of the vernacular. (John’s “you know”s punctuate his speeches like mini-refrains, and somehow McPherson manages to restore the poetic power of the expletive “fucking,” used alternately as an adjective and an adverb. I’m not sure how he does it, but while other writers’ overuse of the word reduces it to banality, in McPherson’s dialogue the constant repetition of the word enables the driving, spiraling verbal explosions to soar.) The challenges provided by language, tone and character make this play perilously difficult to pull off, yet there isn’t a moment in Innvar’s production when the four actors lose the reins. Mark H. Dold’s brings a tortured sensitivity to the role of Ian, who is painfully uncertain about how to proceed in his life but seized with a passionate conviction about clearing the way to some possibility for happiness. By contrast, Deanna Gibson comes on swinging as Neasa; articulate about her needs and complaints, she makes it easy to believe that Ian would be drawn to her forthrightness and vibrancy in his first efforts to find a life for himself outside the church. Patrick Ball contributes a warm and touching portrayal of the young male hustler Ian picks up in the penultimate scene; experimenting with his sexuality is one way in which he tries to figure out who he might be. Wilbur Edwin Henry is superb as John, a middle-class man of unexceptional imagination, with a tendency toward sad-sack clownishness, who nonetheless has the capacity to touch tragic depths. McPherson gave this character a fifteen-page monologue in scene three that you might call the dramatic equivalent of an aria if the writing weren’t so blissfully un-self-conscious. Henry discharges it with perfect offhand control.

In a failed effort to make Neasa see why he has to break away from their relationship, Ian explains that as enormous as his decision to leave the priesthood was, “the fucking huge mistake I made was thinking that that was the end of the journey for me.” At the conclusion of Shining City, John has weathered his crisis and come out the other side, but though Ian has changed his life for the second time and then changed it back again, and though he thinks he finally knows where he’s going, he’s still in flux. The labyrinthine journey in Kafka on the Shore has a dénouement, like that of any fairy tale (which isn’t the same as saying that all its questions are answered, since it’s also a kind of dream). The terrifying last moment of Shining City suggests that Ian is as far from the end of his as he was in the opening scene.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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