The hypnotic multimedia piece “The Elephant Vanishes,” a standout among the international productions at the ambitious Lincoln Center Festival, depicts a collective nightmare. The surreal events are drawn from three stories by postmodernist Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The throat-tightening air of menace reflects the sensibility of director Simon McBurney, the avant-garde darling of international festivals everywhere. The anxiety-driven characters are given their wrist-slashing intensity by members of Japan’s Setagaya company. And the dazzling technology was executed by McBurney’s Complicite company. So, now the audience knows whom to thank for the disturbing dreams they’re sure to have when they go home from the theater.
Murakami’s work provides the eerie storylines for this disquieting evening. Newlyweds awake in the middle of the night with a fierce hunger. Unable to find anything edible in the refrigerator (a luminous fixture with an ominous stage presence), they drive frantically through the streets of Tokyo until they find a McDonald’s to rob.
A bored housewife, inexplicably unable to sleep, spends her nights reading “Anna Karenina” (“There’s nothing wrong with me, I just can’t sleep”) until, on the 17th night of her mysterious insomnia, she dashes out of her cramped apartment and drives to a deserted place where she comes to a bad end.
A lonely appliance salesman (there’s that creepy refrigerator again) picks up a woman at a bar and tries to explain his strange obsession with an elephant that has gone missing from the town zoo and his even stranger, physics-defying theory on how it happened. “Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair,” the salesman says, putting his finger on the existential malaise that afflicts all the narrators of these stories. Shaken in his belief in the order of the universe, which translates to the sense of unity (“unity of design, unity of color, unity of function”) that he values in the kitchens he sells, he feels himself cast adrift, without purpose or meaning to his life.
Making brilliant use of the very technology that has caused this sense of disconnectedness, McBurney and his team of designers experiment with light and sound to find images for the spiritual alienation that causes Murakami’s characters to go off the deep end. The housewife who can’t sleep and takes “Anna Karenina” too much to heart would never call herself schizophrenic; but her identity crisis becomes manifest when she splits into four separate people. The young married guy who recounts his out-of-character criminal behavior has an out-of-body experience, floating on water that carries him far, far away from the scene of his crime. And that appliance salesman is so disconnected from the world around him that he tells his elephant story to a woman who isn’t there.
Meanwhile, horns are blaring, sirens are screaming, lights are flashing and kaleidoscopic scenes of busy, bustling, crowded Tokyo projected on the back wall are making us feel faint. Less ethereal than Robert Wilson and nowhere near as bizarre as Richard Foreman, McBurney is the consummate collaborator — startlingly original, but always in the good cause of illuminating material that really matters nowadays.