A fluid journey where time is relative and nothing is mundane, Kafka on the Shore is intense, engaging, and erotic. With this play, Spooky Action Theatre takes the audience to the edge and back again. That edge is surreal, where reality and dreams mingle. If you are looking for a theatrical experience that could be described as Zen meets avant-garde, Kafka on the Shore may be your kind of show.
The title may be familiar to aficionados of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Murakami's acclaimed work has ranged from collections of short stories to the more grounded "Norwegian Wood." "Kafka on the Shore" has been described as a "metaphysical novel with a twist of Japanese magical realism" and "quintessential Murakami." Having not read his work myself, I'll take their word for it.
Frank Galati adapted Murakami's 457-page novel for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre a few years ago. (He is a Tony Award-winner for his adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway.) Spooky Action Theatre is now presenting the second professional production of the Kafka on the Shore. As directed by Rebecca Holderness, the action flows stylishly throughout the performance.
Galati's script focuses on the plight of two characters: Kafka, a teenager, and the mature Mr. Nakata. The boy and the old man never meet yet their stories intersect unexpectedly. Scenes begin and end simultaneously and time is a malleable conceit, not measured in neatly divided increments. Ghostly figures slide and glide their way in and out of focus while anthropomorphic animals observe and assist the main characters.
If you embrace the experience of this play, Kafka and Nakata's crisscrossing journeys have the potential to grip you. But remember, you have been warned: you cannot check your brain at the door.
Kafka, 15, flees his tyrannical father in Tokyo and runs away to another city. He seeks his mother and the comfort of books, while being guided by a talking crow. He crosses paths with three women and the Oedipus parallels begin. Kafka is drawn by his heart and his libido to Miss Saeki, a beautiful older woman. When their psychic connection crosses the line into sexual contact, the dreamlike atmosphere makes the encounter more palatable.
The play also presents Mr. Nakata's odyssey. Mentally challenged, Nakata is a gentle soul with the ability to talk to cats and dogs and does so to help find lost pets. He begins investigating a lost cat, which leads him to a notorious killer who takes on the persona of Johnnie Walker (of whisky fame) for a little taste of Grand Guignol. After rescuing the cats, Nakata finds himself on a quest for a mystical stone and an inexplicable connection to Kafka.
Kafka is played by Michael Wong, an adult actor, who is strangely believable as a fifteen year-old. Wong successfully conveys a sense of wonder as Kafka struggles to find out who he really is. As Nakata, Al Twanmo's soothing, voice and calm demeanor plays in contrast to the fantastic creatures and figures he meets.
Both Kafka and Nakata encounter a myriad of characters on their respective journeys and the acting ensemble creates vivid portrayals which serve to illuminate, confuse, answer questions and pose even more.
Among the cast, Steve Beall makes a malevolent Johnnie Walker and a memorable Colonel Sanders, who also crossed paths with Mr. Nakata. (Fun fact: the late Col. Sanders now works as a pimp.) From the animal characters, Sarah Taurchini embodies sex appeal in feline form as Mimi the cat and as the colonel's number one menu item.
Tuyet Thi Pham makes a strong impression as a transgendered librarian who befriends Kafka. And as Kafka's dream woman/mother figure, MiRan Powell is a picture of maternal grace and feminine beauty.
From the beginning, Kafka is guided by Crow, personified brilliantly by the sinewy and sensual performance of Dane Figueroa Edidi. Always watching, unseen by others, Crow is like a metaphysical Jiminy Cricket and one-person Greek chorus. When Kafka and Saeki share a dreamy night of passion, Crow punctuates their offstage sexual encounter with a serpentine fan dance, executed beautifully by Edidi.
Rebecca Holderness's work as director is abetted by the designs work of Brooke Robbins (sets), Zachary Dalton (lighting), Sara Jane Palmer (costumes), and David Crandall (sound).
Revealing other plot threads or characters would do disservice to Kafka on the Shore, which needs to be seen and heard to be truly appreciated. Head to 16th Street to Spooky Action Theatre's home in the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church. And prepare for a waking dream.