Kafka on the Shore mesmerizes at the Steppenwolf Theatre
    Left to right: Ensemble member Francis Guinan (Johnnie Walker) and David Rhee (Nakata) in Kafka on the Shore based on the book by Haruki Murakami, adapted and directed by ensemble member Frank Galati. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

    Kafka on the Shore is based on the perplexing novel by Haruki Murakami, the international bestselling Japanese writer. The Steppenwolf’s production delivers a mesmerizing barrage of elusive, impressionistic, dream-like stage pictures stitched together by adapter and director Frank Galati.

    Galati, a Tony-award winning emeritus NU Performance Studies professor, has done adaptations of Murakami before. His stage production of After the Quake earned national praise and it was during the rehearsals of this show that Galati read Kafka on the Shore for the first time. He discussed the difficulties that the epic qualities of the story would pose for a stage adaptation with several of the actors from his first Murakami project.

    “Nevertheless I kept returning to it,” he explains in an interview with Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey. “And thinking how viable it might be on stage. It’s so rich in dialogue scenes that it seemed a very appetizing candidate for dramatization.”

    The dialogue, like the characters, is plentiful and plenty quirky. Each character and each scene seems to exist in its own dreamscape. As the show moves on, those who don’t set aside their desire for understanding everything will probably wind up disappointed. Kafka on the Shore moves with an absurdity similar to that found in The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland.

    Some will inevitably complain because it deviates from the book in the form of omissions, tone and dialogue, but an adaptation is fundamentally a little bit different. For example, James Schuette’s slick, blue stage set. You could feasibly say that this is what subconscious looks like — glossy, deep blue, familiar, but a little strange. It’s beautifully simple, yet puzzling, and it slides around with enough surprises to make you wonder if you aren’t watching a nightmare that’s taking place inside a Rubik’s Cube. In other words: Don’t even try to think of this show as one cohesive whole. Trust the wildly improbable circumstances and just go with it.

    In the Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater, the work of the page gets done by bodies, material things and lights. It certainly appears easy enough to be understood, but an elevator in the middle of the stage makes vignettes suddenly appear. Bizarre elements drop from the roof. The solid-looking back wall slides in and out while the backlit cyc (that piece of white fabric along the back wall) shifts your mood with constantly changing colors.

    Galati has animated Kafka on the Shore by breaking the lengthy, lyrical prose of the novel into scenes where simple stage presence or subtle movement take the place of adjectives and punctuation. There is a fairly rigorous and explicit logic at work in his adaptation and careful readers will be rewarded, amused, and most importantly, enriched by Galati’s version. Those who haven’t read should be just as well rewarded. If nothing else, viewers will agree the show is visually compelling and, all told, it’s also an impressively faithful compression of a 500-page novel into a a live show that runs slightly over 2 hours.

    Kafka on the Shore runs through November 16th at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Call the box office at (312) 335-1650 for information about tickets or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s website.


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