His chin is pitched forward, his ears protrude and his brow is furrowed over glinting black eyes. The protagonist of “Life & Times of Michael K,” which opened on Monday at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, has the countenance of a man in perpetual pursuit. A refugee trapped in his own country, he is a puppet manipulated by forces beyond his control.
Even as his wood-carved features remain placid, he is an extraordinary embodiment of human reflex and interiority created by the Handspring Puppet Company. When he collapses into a crumpled heap of disjointed limbs, or gambols triumphantly to a playground refrain, his figure demonstrates operatic feeling with delicate precision. It is a marvel to behold.
So is the entirety of this captivating and transportive production, adapted and directed by Lara Foot from the Booker Prize-winning 1983 novel of the same name by J.M. Coetzee. Set amid a fictional civil war in South Africa, the story charts a journey undertaken by Michael K and his ailing mother, Anna, from a besieged Cape Town to her rural birthplace, Prince Albert. What begins as a fulfillment of Michael’s filial duty evolves into a philosophical pilgrimage, away from civilization’s destructive conflicts toward direct communion with nature.
But first Michael has to load his mother into a souped-up wheelbarrow and cart her out of the city. Stooped over with age and illness, Anna has a raspy, giddy laugh that lends an air of adventure to their escape from bombardment and destitution. Mother and son are each maneuvered, bunraku-style, by up to three puppeteers at once, animated by a combination of intricate movement and vocalizations that include not just dialogue, but grunts, sighs and heaves of effort.
The puppetry, created and designed by Adrian Kohler, and directed here by Kohler and Basil Jones, both Handspring founders, achieves a manner of artistic transcendence. How is it possible to render the cascading traumas of displacement, loss and captivity into a legible aesthetic experience? There is a distancing mechanism inherent to the form that allows for these figurines — assemblies of wood, cane and carbon fiber — to illustrate feelings and circumstances otherwise too extreme and dire to visualize with actors onstage. Projection design by Yoav Dagan and Kirsti Cumming, in addition to depicting shifts in landscape, magnifies the characters’ etched faces in detail.
And each puppet, including a brave but ill-fated goat and three curious children, is the sum of magnificent, multipronged performances, led by the puppet master Craig Leo, who handles adult Michael alongside Markus Schabbing and Carlo Daniels. When a ravenous Michael is offered a chicken pie, each one of his puppeteers tears off a furious bite. And when a restless Anna keeps Michael awake at night, her fussing and fidgeting are a symphonic collaboration between Faniswa Yisa, Roshina Ratnam and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe.
Foot’s adaptation, presented here by Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and Baxter Theater Centre, where Foot is the artistic director, smartly emphasizes the Odyssean episodes of Coetzee’s novel and adheres closely to Michael’s point of view. Third-person narration is delivered to the audience by multiple performers, including Andrew Buckland, Sandra Prinsloo and Billy Langa, a shuffle of voices that gives the production’s uninterrupted two hours a sustained sense of urgency and momentum. (The show was also presented this summer at the Edinburgh Fringe.)
The inventive and atmospheric stagecraft captures the spartan, poetic quality of Coetzee’s prose. The sunrise ambers and midnight blues of Joshua Cutts’s lighting design illuminate Michael’s states of mind as much as they do time and place. Kyle Shepherd’s score is rich with both ominous and aching strings and piano, while David Classon’s sound transports Michael from the chaos of a war-torn metropolis to the swishy silence beneath a river’s surface. Patrick Curtis’s versatile soot-colored set and the earth-toned streetwear designed by Phyllis Midlane facilitate the production’s expansive canvas.
The race of Coetzee’s itinerant hero, written during South Africa’s apartheid, is only lightly specified in the novel, where Michael is classified in official documents as “CM,” or colored male. Onstage, Michael and Anna’s features offer a similarly subtle indication of their background. It is a radical artistic gesture, given the narrative’s setting, that posits Michael K as a symbol of human existence. It’s a timely one, too, to consider the possibility of a connection with one’s homeland that surpasses earthly conflicts.
Life & Times of Michael K
Through Dec. 23 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 2 hours.