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Lost in Translation

Frank Galati takes on Haruki Murakami but can't quite bring his dreamworld to life.

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Kafka on the Shore Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Adapting a 467-page metaphysical novel for the stage sounds like daunting work, but it's not necessarily impossible when the novel is Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. The key is in how much the book resembles a dream—not just in its accumulation of fantastic events but in the way the narrative unspools. One thing follows another, but it's not always clear why. Symbols pile up but resist meaning or suggest multiple meanings. Everything, as one character puts it, is in flux: "The Earth, time, concepts, love, life, faith, justice, evil—they're all fluid and in transition."

With its lifelike unreality and transitory but intense grip on our consciousness, the theater is a natural home for dreams. But adapter-director Frank Galati, who staged Murakami's After the Quake in 2005, never manages to penetrate fully into the dreamworld the novel creates. His Steppenwolf production captures some of Murakami's strangeness, humor, and penchant for poetic excess, but the essential character of the work, its alternate universe, remains inaccessible. In place of vivid dreaming we get vacant sleepwalking.

As Galati tells it, the story is by turns baffling and insubstantial. In alternating scenes, two heroes set out on separate journeys that eventually intersect: Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old boy running away from his Tokyo home, and Nakata, a gentle older man who was left mentally impaired by a mysterious accident in grade school during World War II.

Kafka's is an oedipal coming-of-age tale. Quiet and thoughtful (and a bit sulky in Christopher Larkin's performance), he winds up in the city of Takamatsu, working and living at a private library overseen by elegant, haunted Miss Saeki, who may be his long-lost mother but mistakes him for her long-dead lover during somnambulistic excursions. Ghosts billow in from time to time, the past overlaps with the present, and Kafka takes a climactic fairy tale-esque trip through a forest that is either the afterlife, his own soul, or both.

We first see Nakata, meanwhile, conversing with a cat—something he's been able to do since the accident that took his smarts and half of his shadow. Following a violent confrontation with an evil force in the guise of whisky mascot Johnnie Walker, Nakata hitches a ride to Takamatsu with a lovably vulgar truck driver named Hoshino. Nakata doesn't understand why he's drawn to the city, only that he must find something called the entrance stone (which, unbeknownst to him, will enable Kafka to enter the forest). Hoshino eventually discovers the stone with the help of another supernatural force, this one in the form of Colonel Sanders.

To all of this Murakami adds his customary raft of references to Western cultural icons, from Yeats to Mickey Mouse, some unconvincing pick-me-up bromides ("You are part of a brand-new world"), and a powerful sense of the void at the center of things. His fondness for the surreal can grow tedious. Still, the novel's evocative, elusive imagery, its labyrinthine story lines, and its fluid sense of time have the texture of the unconscious. The meaning may be slippery, but you get that everything in Murakami's cosmos is connected.

This is the quality missing from Galati's adaptation. The incidents he includes often seem to have been chosen less for their resonance than for their quirkiness, their cheesy messages of personal fulfillment, or their eroticism (no sexy bit from the book goes unstaged, no matter how tangential). The show careens from one static, spotlit episode to another, including irrelevant scenes about a military inquiry into Nakata's childhood injury and a hooker's exegesis of Hegel. Kafka has a sort of doppelganger called Crow (Jon Michael Hill) who flits in and out of both halves of the story and is supposed to help unify things, but his role is so ill defined here that he just adds to the confusion. Consequently, events come off as isolated moments instead of bleeding into one another. Kafka matures and Nakata completes his strange task, but the two stories remain separate.

Galati occasionally orchestrates echoes and correspondences between Kafka and Nakata (both characters might encounter blood at the same time, for instance), but his adaptation lacks the book's sense that these journeys relate even though the characters never meet.

The production's design underscores this. Given the novel's potential for eye-popping spectacle, Galati's production is disappointingly spare. One of the book's most visually striking episodes—a shower of mackerel that falls from the heavens—isn't even attempted, and Kafka's primeval forest is suggested by nothing more than a row of vertical beams bathed in green light. The minimalist set, by James Schuette, sometimes works to the story's advantage, its simplicity throwing the complexities of the plot into sharp relief. But at other times it only makes the adaptation seem more diffuse.

Another major obstacle to coherence is that each half of the story is played in a different style—as moody young adult fiction in Kafka's case, comic adventure in Nakata's. While Larkin's Kafka broods and ponders, David Rhee's Nakata and Andrew Pang's Hoshino race about in an overheated frenzy. Elements of both styles are present in Murakami's writing, but there the characters are afforded more depth.

Galati stages the various incredible occurrences cleverly—and sometimes with a quiet poetry, as when a young Saeki (Christine Bunuan) sings the song whose title is also the title of the show. Francis Guinan's flamboyant turns as Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders are amusing. But the entry to Murakami's land of dreams is barred, and we watch the proceedings as if through a mist. It's difficult to imagine anyone who hasn't read the novel having the faintest idea what's really going on.

Confusion is a part of the book too, of course, but it's bearable so long as you're immersed in the logical illogic of Murakami's world. As a novel, Kafka on the Shore resembles the sandstorm Crow describes near its beginning: "So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn't get in, and walk through it, step by step." There's no storm in Galati's version—just scattered grains of sand.

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