Beneath the Tides of Sleep

Photo by Max Gordon

Metal and glass objects tinkle in the dark, a few notes from a bamboo flute float in the air and seemingly wilt away into nothing. A deceptively simple set (courtesy of Susan Zeeman Rogers) opens up and divides itself in twos. A young housewife tells us that she hasn’t slept in seventeen days. We believe her. She does not, not matter how much she may insist upon her sanity and newfound clarity, seem okay.

The objects as well as the glass percussion and the wooden flutes are played by NewBork Trio ensemble who form the sonic backbone of Ripe Time’s Sleep, which ran November 29th through December 2 as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival and was adapted from Haruki Murakami’s 1994 short story by Naomi Iizuka and directed and devised by Ripe Time and Rachel Dickstein.

We learn that the woman (played with remarkable intensity by Jiehae Park) has awoken from a nightmare in which an old man (Akiko Aizawa) stands at the foot of her bed and continuously pours water over her feet. She is paralyzed in the dream, helpless. It is unclear if the woman ever wakes from the dream, or if she is now living in a world tied inexorably to her subconscious and infused with the numinous. We do know, however, that she now feels free from the monotony of her life as a doting housewife. She continues her daily routine with her dentist husband and young son (Brad Culver and Takemi Kitamua, respectively) but while they slumber, she blossoms, devouring chocolate, brandy, and Anna Karenina.

Her sleeplessness turns the volume up on her life – what was once mundane is now infused with meaning. We enter her world in which the distinctions between dream and reality are blurred. It becomes clear that by indulging her subconscious over the stale trappings and tedium of her daily life, the woman sacrifices a connection with the people around her. She no longer knows or loves her husband and her young son. They exist in a world that she has, in one way or another, left behind. In her eternal wakefulness, she is able to separate herself from family, friends, society entirely. She is free.

Her newfound freedom, however, comes with many costs. Once the woman has chosen to live almost entirely in her mind, she finds that consciousness is a prison of its own and that nightmares lurk in the mind whether you or not you feed them sleep. The woman’s new sleepless life is haunted by an ensemble of visions and manifestations of her mind. There is the old man, Anna Karenina (Paula McGonagle) and, most powerful, a shadow played by Saori Tsukada. The shadow looks and dresses exactly like the woman, mirroring her actions, doubling her motives, but always pressing her to expand and shed her skin. She represents the woman’s darkest, unlived impulses—the seedy underbelly of the tedious lifestyle she once embodied.

While the production is largely faithful to Murakami’s short, there is a noticeable difference in tone and mood. Murakami’s prose is almost serene, like an anesthetic–this won’t take long, just sit back and let it hit you. Ripe Time replaces the slow build and misty prose of the short story with striking visuals and raw energy. Park in particular is often white-knuckled and snarling, as if she feels the need to remind us that she is losing her mind. Perhaps this could be chalked up to the fundamental difference in medium—theatre typically being a more charged experience than the act of reading. Nevertheless, for much of Murakami’s short (on the page), there are only suggestions of violence and foreboding underneath the woman’s monologue. By fully realizing those suggestions, Ripe Time’s Sleep gains dramatic power and weight, but perhaps loses, for better or worse, the more ethereal qualities of Murakami’s work.

I left the theatre struggling to piece together what I had just seen, desperate as I was to add up the individual parts into a cohesive whole. It was as if I was waking from a dream—confident that what I had just experienced was meaningful, but entirely unclear as to why. Each of us makes the decision every day whether or not we choose to be present to the world around us, to get in the ring for another round. As Murakami’s woman shows us, there is often more spark, more life to be found in the confines of the mind than day-to-day existence and that the breaking down of walls often begins with a journey inward. But all journeys have the same end. As for the woman, her gamble, her sacrifice, her wakefulness brings her closer to what the monotony of life is designed to mask: Death, whose cousin we call Sleep.

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