“I think I just felt my crown chakra open,” my friend mused at intermission. A fan dancer in a white kimono had hypnotically moved across the stage to background narration of a rather graphic sexual nature. It was a fitting reaction to the crazy surrealism inherent in a Haruki Murakami novel. Entering his world through reading is intense enough, but as an audience member at a theatrical adaptation, prepare not so much to watch as to swim. Talking cats, walking brands, mass hallucinations – Kafka on the Shore is a risky choice for any theater company to tackle. Spooky Action Theater has just debuted the second professional production of Frank Galati’s adaptation of Murakami’s riddle-infused book, and the company’s ambitious choice is certainly to be admired.
Teenager Kafka Temura (Michael Wong) is on the run. Is he just another misfit or is there something more sinister in his past? Mr. Nakata (Al Twanmo) is on the hunt – for the kidnapper and murderer of local cats. Though touched in the head, he’s the perfect detective for the job, as the cats actually talk to him. Caught up in Nakata’s quest is truck driver Hoshino (an engaging Steve Lee), while (overly) helpful Sakura (Jennifer Knight) and enigmatic librarian Oshima (Tuyet Thi Pham) assist Kafka, as his crush on Miss Saeki (MiRan Powell) delves into the more darkly elemental realms of the psyche.
These twisting plot lines operate almost as alternate time waves, and you should be prepared to meander along with them without quite making sense of it all. Our wry spirit animal, Crow (a mesmerizing Dane Figueroa Edidi), bridges the worlds of theater and audience, adding to the breaking of realities. It all might be the melding of an Oedipal hero’s quest and descent into the Underworld, saturated with the gradual stages of initiation into the sexual mysteries – but there’s no need to crack that metaphorical code. Just let it work its quirky spell.
Creating a dream world from a narrative that veers from the humorous to the grotesque to the poignant is not an easy feat. Spooky Action is helped in this regard by director Rebecca Holderness, who guides an ensemble of varying experience at a drifting pace that you simply have to succumb to in order to enjoy. It’s both attractive and repulsive, taking a while to process afterwards. The production design is simple yet effective – Brooke Robbins’ set of sliding screens (reminding me of Basil Twist’s Dogugaeshi), Sara Jane Palmer’s contemporary costumes and otherworldly lighting by Zachary A. Dalton and Kyle Grant. It’s a journey through fragmented realities especially brought to life by the gorgeous sound design of David Crandall, which adds the backbone to that Kundalini effect.
Performances range from the stellar – including Sarah Taurchini as a pitch-purrfect Siamese cat, and a prostitute who makes exciting sex talk out of reciting Hegel; Steve Beall as both a homicidal Johnnie Walker and pimping Colonel Sanders (yes, you read that correctly) – to the hesitant. Styles are not consistent, and pacing could use some tightening up, but this is a sincere ensemble giving brave performances and I suspect it will continue to mellow into a potent theatrical mix. This production of Kafka on the Shore is well worth the time warp taken to explore the depths of Murakami’s strange, seductive world.
Spooky Action Theater’s production of Kafka on the Shore runs now thru February 24, 2013. Located at 1810 16th Street NW, Washington DC 20009. Closest Metro stop: Dupont Circle (Red line). Tickets range from $20-25. For more information call 202.248.0301.