Audacious in its ambition but not fully satisfying in its execution, Frank Galati’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s vastly evocative novel “Kafka on the Shore” possesses plenty to admire but not quite enough to adore. Still, while it doesn’t quite achieve the level of theatrical lyricism it attempts, this Steppenwolf Theater production does find an exceedingly accessible tone, lending a gentle, deeply humane sensibility to a play filled with philosophical aspirations.
Galati previously adapted the Japanese novelist’s stories in “After the Quake,” a show that also premiered at Steppenwolf before additional regional exposure. Here, he’s working with a full-length novel, and his adaptation manages deftly to contain an awful lot of Murakami’s convoluted, inter-connected, dreamy plotlines without making the show feel wholly overburdened.
The work follows two primary storylines. The first is focused on the titular Kafka (Christopher Larkin), a 15-year-old boy who runs away from his Tokyo home. Exactly what he’s looking for can be thought of both literally (he was separated from his mother and sister as a young child) and more existentially (both the Oedipus myth and Plato’s concept of human beings seeking their lost selves come up here).
The other storyline follows elderly Nakata (David Rhee), who years ago was injured in a mysterious incident during WWII, which left him unable to read or write, but secretly able to speak with cats. Early on in the play, he interviews a few felines (played humorously by humans), in search of a family’s lost pet.
Murakami takes reality, dreams, symbols, myths and more, fusing them together into a literary world where the ground is never quite stable. The use of multiple realities and bold metaphor brings to mind the more fanciful work of Sarah Ruhl, where the effort to piece everything together, rather than the conclusion of all the connections, becomes the point.
While there’s logic involved, this type of abstract work also needs to speak directly to the unconscious.
Galati does brilliantly when the oddities can be fully expressed by an actor. Easily the most effective, memorable sequences here involve Francis Guinan, who in the weirdness of this world embodies whiskey namesake Johnnie Walker as a demonic cat-killer, and capitalist emblem Col. Sanders as a pimp. It’s a terrific performance.
But the work falls short in its efforts to find expression for other elements equally essential to Murakami’s imagination — people who’ve lost half their shadows, for example, or the way in which Nakata and Kafka’s stories connect as the tale moves along. These pieces of the story are referenced rather than felt, and even the main characters’ presence is often more prosaic than poetic.
It’s hard to pinpoint what’s lacking in a show like this. Perhaps it’s the absence of an emotional core, a connection of character and story and imagery to evoke something deeper — curiosity, confusion and the feeling that comes from a jumbled sense of reality.
There’s really good stuff here, but this play remains more impressive in the intellectual realm than in the emotional one. It’s insistently intriguing, but not especially stirring.