Playwright: Adapted by Frank Galati
from the book by Haruki Murakami
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted,
Telephone: 312-335-1650; $20-$70.
Runs through: Nov. 16. Photos by Michael Brosilow.
At first read, Haruki Murakami's novels are pure, prose delirium—beautiful, baffling fantasias layered with riddles and teasing puzzles. Talking cats, skies that rain fish, wrinkles in time where the lives of plain-spoken truck drivers and ghostly soldiers merge and diverge—Murakami creates places and entities that are both instantly recognizable and seemingly unknowable.
So it goes in Steppenwolf Theatre's alternately maddening and gratifying Kafka on the Shore. Adapted for the stage and directed by Frank Galati, Kafka is gorgeous, poetic and enigmatic. Like James Joyce's equally challenging Ulysses, every action, character, place and object within Murakami's densely, double-plotted story symbolizes something else. Scratch the surface and you find your peering down endless, twisting rabbit holes of myth, legend and subtext.
And like Joyce, Kafka requires that you succumb to what you don't understand. You'll never get it all. So rather than fretting and frowning because you won't, it's best to just let Galati's searing stage pictures and the dreamy elegance of his adaptation just wash over you.
It's fitting that there are two plots in Kafka, since early on, the piece invokes Plato's Symposium. In that bit of ancient storytelling, Plato describes how humans were once male and female in the same body, both sexes joined in one being in perfect unity. Eventually, the gods grew angry and used lightning bolts to split everyone in two. The result was a race composed of individuals destined to roam the world seeking their lost other half.
There are two seekers in Kafka on the Shore. The first is the 15-year-old title character ( Christopher Larkin, a perfect mix of vulnerability and head-strong determination ) , a runaway who takes flight in an attempt to escape a prophecy that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. On his Oedipal wanderings, young Kafka is mirrored by Crow ( Jonathan Michael Hill ) , a manifestation of his inner self, whose stream-of-consciousness contemplation provides some of the production's most sexually graphic prose.
The second story centers on Nakata ( David Rhee ) , an elderly, manchild left mentally impaired by an inexplicable childhood accident. In addition to leaving his mind damaged, the accident left Nakata with the ability to talk to cats, and so he spends his days seeking out lost felines—and secret stones that will allow him entry to vast, unknown worlds.
By the time Colonel Sanders shows up ( a walking, talking replica of the chicken-bucket icon ) and reveals that in real life he's a pimp, one thing is confoundedly clear: In Murakami's worlds, there are more things than you may have dreamt of in your philosophy.
Lighting designer James F. Ingalls bathes the story in shades of aquamarine and white rain, giving even a brutal cat killer shadings of ethereal beauty. And James Schuette's minimalist sets complete the mood of abstract, whimsical grace.