The first actor has yet to speak and already we’ve had bunraku-style puppetry, pre-recorded film, shadow projections, images on a TV monitor and live sound effects made by singing bowls and running water. In his adaptation of the 600-page novel by Haruki Murakami, Gotham helmer Stephen Earnhart hits us with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic that draws widely on his background in movies and theater. Performed in Japanese and English, this world preem occasionally threatens to obscure the simplicity of Murakami’s writing with its multi-disciplinary whirl, but for the most part does a fine job of capturing the hallucinatory strangeness of the novel.
For the former director of production for Miramax Films even to attempt to adapt the 1994 novel was a major undertaking. It’s a book that takes its time as it unravels the story of the unemployed Toru Okada whose wife, Kumiko, has mysteriously disappeared. The event triggers the arrival of a succession of characters who are guarded about their esoteric knowledge and mystical powers, but reveal enough to suggest Toru’s situation is somehow connected to Japan’s military past and the rise to political power of Kumiko’s brother Noboru Wataya. That Toru’s absent cat is also called Noboru Wataya and he spends much of the novel at the bottom of a well is all part of the author’s weird yet believable vision.
One of Earnhart’s major achievements is that he does not disappoint fans of the book. Some major characters have gone, others have been merged into one and there are some minor variations in the plot. Yet he maintains the shape — and, importantly, the atmosphere — of the story in a two-hour production that is surprisingly unencumbered by a central character who is essentially passive.
As Toru, James Yaegashi is at the still center of a turbulent world — and it is turbulent enough to keep the performance dynamic. For scenes at the bottom of the well, Earnhart switches to a puppet; for Toru’s feverish dreams, he projects images of a hotel corridor on a series of moveable screens; for the battlefields of the Manchurian desert, he switches to storytelling mode. In the clash between the ordinary and the sinister, the production has the heightened intensity of something by David Lynch.
There’s no doubting its strangeness, but Earnhart keeps it coherent enough to be comprehensible to those who don’t know the novel, while also drawing out some of Murakami’s symbols — fish, water, a baseball bat — more strikingly.
Although his use of sliding Japanese-style screens is reminiscent of Canadian helmer Robert Lepage (who would also be at home with the story’s mystical coincidences), Earnhart’s stagecraft is more earthbound. You feel his achievement is through perspiration rather than inspiration, layering technique on technique in an effort to recreate the metaphysical richness of the novel. But an achievement is what it is, a labor of love that risks feeling labored but in the end does a tremendous job of creating a genuinely theatrical experience from a complex work of literature.