'Kafka on the Shore': Theater Review

Stephanie Berger
Stronger on theatricality than coherence, but the author's fans will be delighted.

The Lincoln Center Festival presents the Ninagawa Company's lavish theatrical adaptation of Haruki Murakami's acclaimed novel.

"It reminds me of some weird avant-garde play," comments one of the characters in Kafka on the Shore, and boy, is he right on the money. Adapted from Japanese author Haruki Murakami's acclaimed 2002 novel, this phantasmagorical stage production features so many ideas, themes, metaphors and literary and historical allusions that it threatens to burst at the seams. It's a testament to the dazzling stagecraft of director Yukio Ninagawa that it somehow never does.

The piece — adapted by director Frank Galati (The Grapes of Wrath) and originally seen at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company — has been translated into Japanese for this production by the Ninagawa Company presented with English supertitles as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

It relates two parallel stories: one is about fifteen-year-old Kafka (Nino Furuhata), who has named himself after his favorite author and who runs away from his tyrannical father, while the other is about the elderly Nakata (Katsumi Kiba), who can't read or write but who has the miraculous ability to speak with cats, acquired in a mysterious youthful incident.

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Both are on a desperate search — Kafka, for his mother and sister who left the family years earlier, and Nakata for a missing cat. The latter's unique communication skills make him particularly suited for the task, as he's able to make inquiries of the felines he meets, played by actors in elaborate cat costumes.

Among the figures the two pilgrims encounter along the way are Johnnie Walker, of Scotch whiskey fame, who turns out to be a serial cat killer; Colonel Sanders — yes, that Colonel Sanders — revealed to be a back-alley pimp; a transgender librarian who befriends Kafka; a graduate student prostitute who spouts Hegel's philosophies while plying her trade; and a cat who calls herself Mimi, after the character in La Boheme.

Add to that line-up the scenes in which hundreds of fish suddenly fall from the sky and a giant neon Saturn floats across the stage, and you have one seriously strange evening of theater in which reality and fantasy are ever-shifting propositions.

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Besides the aforementioned, there are so many references to Oedipus, Yeats, Adolf Eichmann, and so many other subjects that the play should be accompanied not with a program but rather a syllabus.

For a good stretch of its three-hour running time it's all quite entertaining, thanks to the sheer audacity of its imagination and welcome doses of surreal humor. But the longer the evening goes on the more frustrating and enervating it gets, with the particularly oblique, glacial-paced final section seeming to not just slow down time but reverse it.

Visually, the production is a stunner, with Ninagawa staging the action almost entirely within a series of large transparent cubes — containing everything from forests to trucks to buses to urinals to a female singer to conventional sets — which are athletically glided about by black-clad stagehands.   

What it all means is anybody's guess; there are times when you feel that the author isn't even quite sure. But there's no denying that a strange new world has been dazzlingly conceived. It's fun to be there, at least for part of the wild ride. Just don't be surprised when you get home afterwards and find yourself tempted to discuss it with your cat.

Production: Ninagawa Company
Cast: Rie Miyazawa, Naohito Fujiki, Nino Furuhata, Anne Suzuki, Hayato Kakizawa, Tsutomu Takahashi, Masakatsu Toriyama, Katsumi Kiba, Masato Shinkawa
Playwright: Frank Galati
Director: Yukio Ninagawa
Translator: Shunsuki Hiratsuka
Set designer: Tsukasa Nakagoshi
Costume designer: Ayako Maeda
Lighting designer: Motoi Hattori
Sound designer: Katsuji Takahashi
Music: Umitaro Abe

Presented by the Lincoln Center Festival

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