Probably a lot of harried parents have wondered what they could enjoy or accomplish if they could only forego sleep and have the night hours to do everything they didn’t get to in the daytime. Haruki Murakami carries the idea through in his short story, “Sleep,” in which a Tokyo housewife flees her routine by indulging in fantasy while her husband and son snooze. But the Japanese author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore likes to indulge his own interest in the bizarre – or the tipping point between it and reality – so his heroine doesn’t just stay up late: she stops sleeping for 17 days.
In the relatively brief period since it was published in The New Yorker in 1989, the story has inspired two theater adaptations, the first from Simon McBurney’s Complicité in 2003, and now from director Rachel Dickstein and the company Ripe Time. This production of Sleep, a co-commission from BAM, has been eagerly awaited, in part because of the material, which is shot through with Murakami’s characteristic surrealism in a condensed dose, and because it reunites the creative team behind Ripe Time’s acclaimed adaptation of another story on the literary surrealism spectrum: Gertrude Stein’s children’s story, “The World is Round.”
Dickstein and her collaborators on Sleep – six actors in the story’s three roles, plus the Obie winning design team from The World is Round and the NewBorn Trio (who provide an original score on metal and glass objects and a variety of bamboo flutes) – have come to the story by way of its trope of the housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown: here, the bored wife of a dentist and her regimented schedule of shopping, meal prep, laundry, cleaning and caring for her equally routine-bound husband and young son. It’s not clear what exactly sets off her insomnia – or rather, she insists, her heightened existence – but Dickstein sees in this tipping of the scales from ordinary to extraordinary, a “radical remastering” of the protagonist’s life.
Jiehae Park’s confident performance as the Woman bears up that reading; “I haven’t slept for seven- teen days!” she tells us, repeatedly, with relish, a mischievous smile and the slightest tone of shock in her voice at her own daring. Compared to her daily routine, the motions of which she enacts with choreographed precision, doing something as tame as reading Anna Karenina or eating chocolates feels like pure decadence and smacks almost of betrayal of her family, who don’t suspect a thing. With his keen eye for the fractures in the outward order of Japanese society, Murakami seems to me to be taking aim in Sleep at the oppressive weight of duty and family in Japanese society, here laid on the shoulders of the housewife. But Park does not give us any reason to doubt Murakami’s sympathy for the particular balancing act that women face, although, given the story’s dénouement, it would be hard to conclude that this housewife ever succeeds in obtaining the personal and creative space – the room of her own – that she may well crave.
Moreover, the production is most successful in its exploration of a different theme: fear of not meeting one’s responsibilities, fear of what will happen to her if she gives into those pressures and never asks herself what she wants and fear of the consequences if she does. Park is doubled – tripled, actually – in the performance by Saori Tsukada, as her “Shadow,” who reverse-mirror follows her motions and repeats her statements; Takemi Kitamura as a sort of sprite and Akiko Aizawa, as a cloaked mystery presence who tempts the Woman with the things she has been warned not to do, like driving her old Honda Civic late at night. The three actress/dancers, who line up behind her at times like a multi-limbed bodhisattva, may give physical form to her assertion that she is experiencing the world with a heightened sensibility, but they are also taunting creatures, proof of her fractured consciousness, who give the lie to her stated enjoyment of her sleep deprivation. The NewBorn Trio’s musical accompaniment to her descent into herself also keeps the dial on high-alert, with strange noises, deep murmurs and shrieking crescendos. Jiyoun Chang’s lighting, Hannah Wasileski’s projections and Susan Zeeman Roger’s set design all underscore an out-of-body state, one that comes right up through the floorboards, and that is, at times, quite frankly disturbing.
Has the Woman taken control of her life of routine or is it controlling her, by setting off a potentially dangerous crisis? Park is delightful as the housewife who reunites with a self she had forgotten she had once been, reveling in Anna Karenina’s romance, a snifter of Chivas Regal in one hand and a box of chocolates at arm’s length (Paula McGonagle appears in these moments as the tragic countess, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy again). But if Dickstein’s Woman is meant to be an exemplar of female agency, Ripe Time’s acknowledging of the story’s darker implications opens a Pandora’s box that the production is not able to satisfyingly close again.