Quotes of the Day

Monday, Oct. 18, 2004

Open quoteIf you were a British stage director looking for foreign material to adapt, you'd likely avoid anything in Japanese, a language whose subtleties have tormented translators for centuries. And you definitely wouldn't choose Haruki Murakami, whose witty, noirish best sellers about contemporary Japan (Norwegian Wood, A Wild Sheep Chase) combine the mundane and the surreal with daunting complexity.

So, of course, Simon McBurney had to try. His London-based Complicite theater group teamed up last year with Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre to tackle Murakami. ("Japan's Kafka," McBurney calls him.) The result, The Elephant Vanishes, has played to packed houses and rave reviews in Tokyo, New York and London. It opened at MC93 Bobigny in suburban Paris earlier this month, and it will soon move to the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Appropriately, The Elephant Vanishes is a difficult beast to describe. Based on three short stories from the author's 1993 English-language collection of that name, the production is set in Tokyo and performed in Japanese with English (or, in Paris, French) supertitles. It concerns a kitchen-equipment salesman obsessed with the disappearance of an elephant from the local zoo, a young couple who deal with an attack of predawn munchies by robbing an all-night McDonald's, and a housewife who hasn't slept in 17 days.

That doesn't begin to describe it. Using projected images, video footage, crisp sound effects, dazzling lighting and an acrobatic cast that flits around on wires, McBurney melds the three stories into a meditation on anxiety and loss amid the placid routines of life in urban Japan. The kitchen salesman's elephant fixation ruins a potential romance. The larcenous couple learn they don't really know each other ("What was she doing with ski masks?" asks the exasperated husband. "We've never gone skiing.") The sleepless housewife realizes she despises her well-ordered life and runs off to a potential date with the Big Sleep—death. Things taken for granted suddenly seem out of place, and cause becomes separated from effect. "Our world has become so bright," muses the housewife amid Tokyo's nighttime cityscape, "that we can no longer see anything."

Reinforcing this sense of reality's elusiveness, projected images turn the bare stage convincingly into bars, bedrooms, kitchens, showrooms and highways. The actors sleep in vertical beds and, when one stands up, he is horizontal to the stage. Characters split into identical versions of themselves, some carrying on with life while one of them comments wryly. It is, no doubt, a physically grueling play to perform, and the Japanese actors are overdue for home leave. For now, no performances are scheduled after the Ann Arbor run, but Complicite officials say the show will definitely appear again. Considering the difficulty of making Murakami make sense onstage and McBurney's dazzling success at it, this Elephant is unlikely to vanish completely.Close quote

  • Donald Morrison
  • A dizzying adaptation of surreal Japanese fiction, The Elephant Vanishes defies logic—and dazzles
| Source: A dizzying adaptation of surreal Japanese fiction, The Elephant Vanishes defies logic—and dazzles