Guaranteed: Nearly everyone in the audience is in tears at the finish of The Elephant Vanishes. The eye juice springeth not in response to the precisely captured woes of the nameless Tokyoites who populate the show, but from the fusillade of lights that blare from the stage with near nuclear force: Unless you’ve thought to bring goggles from the last solar eclipse, those peepers are getting shut down. Compulsive blindness hardly seems a subtle closing tactic, but it’s in fact a beautifully logical, literally dazzling finale for director Simon McBurney’s reframing of three tales by world-lit fave Haruki Murakami. Paris may be the city of lights, but “Tokyo is the brightest city on earth,” according to one of the narrators, and everything in The Elephant Vanishes is illuminated, from the myriad surfaces that bear a supple flow of filmed cityscape to the sad blue gleam within the desolate fridge that’s perpetually onstage. If the lumière‘s top notch, the son also rises to the occasion: dreamy techno and Shostakovich scrapes punctuated by the whiplash pop of a beer can, the fraught sigh of a sliding rice-paper screen.
In the play’s third movement, structured as the video diary of a mad housewife who hasn’t slept in 17 days, the heroine says, “No one living knows what death is like.” But vision suggests a key. For her, getting some shut-eye would equal the big D; for another character, a kitchen-appliance salesman, “even the most beautifully designed object dies if it’s out of balance with its surroundings.” It’s a sales pitch, resonating with his showroom mantra of unity, but it has a Zen-ish way (we hear it three times) of both illuminating the play’s concerns and justifying its proportions. Then there’s the AWOL elephant, whose absence becomes an obsession for the salesman: Would seeing it somehow give meaning to his gadget-glutted life?
The limber members of Setagaya Public Theatre ably reproduce, at a moment’s notice, an army of swaying straphangers, the titular pachyderm, and a city of sleepers (standing in the shadows, pillows clutched to the upstage sides of their heads). Most impressive is the array of mind-body splits, in which similarly dressed players converse as equal parts of the same person. It’s a gasp-worthy conceit that’s particularly effective in the episode of the insomniac woman, who fractures into no fewer than four actresses as her grasp of reality—and her affection for her family—erodes.
Murakami’s output is intriguingly varied; acclaimed for his weird tales (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), he’s more compelling on a smaller scale, transforming workaday regrets and absurdities into the quietly profound. The Complicité production (in Japanese with supertitles) successfully renders in three dimensions the punctilio under which secret thoughts conspire; but it stumbles a bit when the wackiness is too willful. In the second story, newlyweds deranged by the wee-hour munchies hold up a McDonald’s (apparently, Super Size Me hasn’t hit Tokyo), and the light-comedy trappings (“Why my wife had ski masks was beyond me—we’ve never been skiing”) can’t hide the unconvincing nature of their disconnect from the realm of actual human situations. But the not quite intersecting stories of the salesman and the slumber-spurning spouse resonate with each other and with a sense of the city as both tomb and possibility.
This is Murakami’s Tokyo amplified to fever; it’s also an any-urbania into which you can plug your own Gotham life and exceed the limits of vision. A cell phone holds photos from a failed first date, phrases spin to infinite regress (“Stop thinking”), family members cast Nosferatu shadows, and a car gets you to the edge of nightmare. The cumulative effect is of free-floating koyaanisqatsi and an exquisite languor à la Wong Kar-wai, a clock-stopping feast of sacrificed umbrellas and not quite frozen frames. You’ll cry anyway.