Wound Up At the SAF

Toru and May at the abandoned well, photo by Lloyd Smith

A week ago, I was lucky enough to attend one of only three performances of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as part of the Singapore Arts Festival, directed by Stephen Earnhart, who co-wrote the play with Greg Pierce. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s masterful book of the same name, the play did something I could not have imagined possible: distill a complex 600-page novel into a tight two-hour stage play, and retain all the wonderful surreal weirdness that initially made me such an instant Murakami fan (and which helped to inspire a recent tongue-in-cheek Bingo game at the New York Times).

It’s been several years now since I’ve read the book, and this was likely for the best; I didn’t have the plot and characters firmly established in my head anymore, and so I was free to go into the performance without any preconceived notions. Once things began, plot points once again resurfaced in my mind, and so moments of recognition peppered my experience, but filtered as they were through the mise-en-scène of the dramatic performance, they felt newly reimagined, as if encountered for the first time.

It’s difficult to describe the performance to someone who wasn’t there, mostly because of the innovative visual elements. This trailer for the play should give you some idea:

The use of both opaque and translucent projections screens, many of which moved on rollers across the stage (as well as, at one point, image projection onto a fish tank, which was really cool), allowed a multiplicity of locations without the cumbersome aspect of a set change. The photo at the top of this entry (credit: Lloyd Smith) is a good example of this technique, where Toru Okada (played by James Yaegashi) and May Kasahara (played by Kristin Villanueva) are having a conversation at the abandoned dried-up well that Toru later uses as a sanctuary for quiet and solitude; a circle of light, representing the entrance to the well, is shone on the stage between them, and the image projected onto the back wall is their view of the well’s interior, descending into blackness (although I’m not quite sure why they’re both looking upward in this photo).

Another cool technique was the use of minimalist bunraku-style puppetry, often as a stand-in for Toru’s actions in the real world, or his experiences in the dream world. The large articulated puppet was often manipulated by two or more puppeteers, who at other points in the play may have shown up as Dream Police. The photo below (also taken by Lloyd Smith) shows Toru falling asleep and entering the dream world, with the puppet rising from his prone form, then turning to look down on him, and then drift away into the dream. From where I was sitting, it wasn’t always clear what the puppet was doing, but when it was, the technique was incredibly effective.

Toru enters the dream world, photo by Lloyd Smith

The last thing I’ll mention is the utilization of both recorded and live music throughout the play. Before even starting, the live musician, Bora Yoon, emerged from backstage, slowly made her way to the pit, and set the aural tone of the show through water effects and Tibetan singing bowls. Throughout, her use of synthesized sounds and real instruments created the eerie and often tense soundtrack of Toru’s descent into the sometimes frightening dreamscape of his suddenly disappeared wife Kumiko (played by Ai Kiyono) and her controlling politician brother Noboru Wataya (played by James Saito). At times ambient and at others driving, the constant undercurrent of music intensified the cinematic quality of the play.

It was an amazing, fantastic (in both senses of the word) experience, and I’m so glad I was able to go, and to share it with my friend and former colleague Krison Tan. It revolutionized my idea of what could be done in a live dramatic performance, and best of all, it made me want to read the novel again.

(Another much more coherent review of the play, at its premiere during the Edinburgh International Festival last August, can be found at Variety.)

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Filed under Art, Books, Singapore

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