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Frank Galati Is a Master of the Art of Adaptation

My experience with Haruki Murakami is very personal, as I think must be the case with other readers who become fans of his work. There’s a kind of mysterious inner energy, an inner world that you find yourself getting in touch with when you read him. There’s also this plainness in his style – an unadorned, muscular but simple prose that conceals a great deal. It’s like the smooth surface of a pond that is incredibly, even unthinkably deep. From this plain prose style, you can also tell that Murakami has studied Jack London and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner – the great American writers, whom he uses as inspiration in his work in surprising ways. I was first introduced to Mr. Murakami’s writing when I read Sputnik Sweetheart. Then I read Norwegian Wood, and then Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and finally, after the quake, which I chose to adapt for the Steppenwolf stage. Murakami’s work is inherently theatrical in many ways. In fact, his novels and short stories are full of plays; sometimes the whole story can feel like a play. In many of the stories, impossible things occur, fantastical, surreal episodes. The worlds of the char acters in these fictions bulge and bend as in a distorted mirror. They are "porous" worlds, because the border between reality and fiction, between the seen and the unseen, between life and death is so incredibly undefined. In a Murakami story, you can just step into the invisible so easily, like you would turn and say, "Oh, it’s right here to my left, all I have to do is go this way, and I’m gone." He’s mesmerized by that brutal fact – that living is a membrane of consciousness. You poke it, and you can easily go into a zone which is death-shrouded, which is tortured in a way that dreams are tortured. And yet, in this Murakami terrain, we encounter human beings who are familiar. We recognize ourselves in them, even though they have extraordinary adventures. Most of the time, they’re painfully ordinary people, people that are lackluster, that don’t have a very interesting life, but they are thrust into what Beckett called "Zones of Abandonment." Those times in life when you’re marooned, you’re stranded, you’ve been dumped, you’ve been abandoned by your parents, you’ve simply been left. And that’s when their adventure begins. At the same time, Murakami is a dramatist because of his obsession with small interior spaces. Even in a book as epic as Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, the characters spend a lot of the time in the kitchen, or in a motel room, a hospital room, a living room. These interiors, however, are just the first interiors we perceive, because then there are the interiors of the characters. In a Murakami story, it’s not so much where the characters go in the world, as where they go inside themselves. In the second story in after the quake, called landscape with flatiron, the central character is a girl who is very depressed and alienated, she’s run away from home, and she meets this older guy who makes bonfires. And she remembers having to write a paper on Jack London in school, and how she said to her teacher that the character in London’s story How to Build a Fire wanted to die. Everybody in the class laughs at her, including the teacher, and he asks, "Why would anyone want to die?" Then she talks about how London himself died of alcohol poisoning. And you know that she wants to die, too. So you get a whole ocean of death inside of both of these characters, London’s and Murakami’s, at the same time. Many of the stories in this collection end with waking and sleeping; in a way, the stories seem to be dreaming each other. In the end of one story, somebody falls asleep, and in the beginning of the next story, someone wakes up and it’s a different person. It’s a different story. In the last story of the collection (which in many ways mirrors the form of Joyce’s Dubliners), the main character, Junpei, is awake and is the guardian of Sayoko, the woman he loves, and Sala, her daughter. They’re sleeping, and he’s awake and alert. He promises them, in his heart, that he will never falter in his guardianship of their lives. This waking/sleeping observer/observed is very reminiscent of the scene in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, when Vladimir looks at Estragon and he’s snoozing. And Vladimir says, "At me, too, someone is looking, of me, too, someone is saying, 'He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.'" That’s the most powerful articulation of our little lives. To be is to be perceived. I think that notion is very profoundly a part of Murakami’s aesthetic, as well as very much a part of the zeitgeist. In addition to the references to works of literature, there’s also a tremendous interest in music and musical forms. A number of Murakami’s characters play piano, or are passionate musicians, or know a lot about music theory and music history. There are references to classical music, as well as references to popular music, like the Beatles, and to jazz and blues. In developing the adaptation, I didn’t think about a musical score or musical punctuation, at first. But very early in honey pie, the framing story in our production, Sayoko hums some Schubert, and I thought, "What if the Schubert that’s alluded to in the text becomes a motif in the performance?" I became very interested in the notion that an instrument like a cello might be another character, a kind of narrating musical personality. Then, getting further into it, it seemed that a cello wasn’t enough. There needed to be a richer musical texture than just the cello, and a Japanese instrument called the koto came to mind. There’s a kind of sweeping melodic feeling in the deep, darkly colored tones of the cello, and the koto is percussive – it’s a very striking counterpoint to the cello. Andre Pluess, who is our sound designer, decided that the musicians should play live. That their living presence, the spontaneity of their participation, their witnessing of the unfolding of the stories would really contribute, in a simple, but a very rich way to the Murakami-esque nature of the whole production.