Murakami’s `quake’ rattles Berkeley Rep

Opened Oct. 17, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Galati translates Murakami stories to the stage
Three stars Stirred, not shaken

We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, the quality and bounty of theater chief among them.

When our theater companies aren’t producing interesting shows themselves, chances are they’re importing good stuff from elsewhere. That’s the case with Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new show, after the quake, which opened Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

The show originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is presented here as a co-production with the La Jolla Playhouse. You might call this Part 1 of a two-part mini-Chicago festival. Berkeley Rep’s next show is Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika, which hails from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Pulling shows from other places seems especially relevant in the case of after the quake, a theater piece created from fiction. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s after the quake deals with the aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

For the stage version, Galati, an avowed Murakami devote, takes two of the book’s stories and creates an 80-minute play that, for all its theatrical artistry, still feels like a piece of literature.

Getting back to the “lucky to be in the Bay Area” thing, one of our great companies is Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into fully staged theater pieces without altering the original text. Well, Galati’s after the quake, which has been more liberally adapted, is beautiful but not on par with Word for Word’s best work (Stories by Tobias Wolff comes immediately to mind).

What’s missing is the theatrical thrill, the excitement of crackling good writing coming alive and becoming something more than just writing.

There are certainly moments in “quake” that reverberate. Most come from the story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” in which an action-hero frog (Keong Sim), shows up the home of a mild-mannered loan officer (Paul H. Juhn) to enlist his help in fighting the Worm, an underground villain that absorbs hatred, gets angry and makes earthquakes.

Sim, in his three-piece suit, green gloves and green sunglasses (costumes by Mara Blumenfeld), is a wonderfully droll frog who takes the saving of lives very seriously, and Juhn is just as good as the average Joe who rises to the challenge of being a heroic sidekick.

The other story, “Honey Pie,” is a sweet love story that aims to be something more but falls short, at least in theatrical terms. On the page, with time to muse and decipher, the story may reveal more depth.

Junpei (Hanson Tse), Sayoko (Jennifer Shin) and Takatsuki (Juhn) were inseparable in college until two sides of their friendly triangle fell in love, leaving the third side feeling lonely and rejected.

Years later, Sayoko and Takatsuki are the divorced parents of a little girl, Sala (Madison Logan V. Phan on opening night, alternating in the role with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji), whose dreams are invaded by a creature she calls “earthquake man.”

The only thing that seems to calm the girl is a bedtime story from her mom’s old friend, Junpei, a short story writer by trade. He tells her about clever bears and other bears who miss their chances.

Notions of anxiety, safety and finding equilibrium on shifting grounds course through each of the stories, but aside from the fact that “Superfrog” is one of Junpei’s short story creations, the connection between them does not come through strongly, thus giving the brief evening a somewhat incomplete feel.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, from Galati’s simple, fluid staging on James Schuette’s dark, elegant set (think of a hip advertising agency lobby beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls), to the warm, charming performances from the cast. Best of all is the live music performed by Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto (a stringed instrument that, like the accordion does for Paris, immediately conjures Japan). In addition to the original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, the duo also manages to work in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “You Light Up My Life.”

after the quake ends up being a more intellectual pleasure than an emotional theatrical experience — sort of like a good short story compared to a big, juicy novel.

For information about after the quake, visit

Galati reads Murakami

There’s a definite literary bent — no ice rinks or Disney TV musicals here — to director Frank Galati’s work.

Two of his best-known stage adaptations began life as books: The Grapes of Wrath and Ragtime. He even got an Oscar nomination for his screenplay version of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist.

Now he turns his attention to celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami with after the quake, now in previews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The show, an adaptation of Murakami’s book of stories related to the massive 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed more than 6,000 people, began life in Galati’s classroom at Northwestern University, where he is an emeritus professor in the department of performance studies.

“Right after 9/11 I was looking for material for my students to work on,” Galati says during a rehearsal break at Berkeley Rep. “I often teach a course on performing short stories and have done James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley and others. But the students were just not connecting with some of these classic writers.”

So Galati tried Murakami, who is arguably Japan’s most celebrated author and is probably best known in this country for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

“The stories are so cryptic, elusive, deceptively simple,” Galati says. “They create a world that’s very recognizable. Clearly, the stories are about Japan, but the world of the stories seems very much like the one we live in. The students really dug the stories.”

After a couple of years of working on the stories in the classroom, Galati took them to Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf, where Galati is an ensemble member, and after the quake made the leap from academia to the professional theater.

The show has since been done several times, and the Berkeley Rep production is produced in association with Steppenwolf and the La Jolla Playhouse.

The simplicity of the production — four actors and two musicians — helps convey Murakami’s blend of Chekhovian naturalism and phantasmagorical comedy.

While dealing with a hugely serious issue like the aftermath of an earthquake, there’s still time for something called “Super Frog Saves Tokyo.”

“That’s something Murakami does in all his works,” Galati says. “He’s tremendously interested in the thin membrane that separates the waking from the sleeping world, the mundane jog through the workaday world and the dreams that are kind of haunted by dark and threatening forces. I just find that tremendously interesting and rewarding.”

Galati notes Murakami’s deft use of contrast: Chekhovian nautralism in the way characters are drawn and in the way relationships unfold. But then there’s this interest in pop culture, which Galati describes as “fantastical, phantasmagorical and comically grotesque.”

“There’s this great kind of tension between the realistic and the more Kafkaesque, uncanny, scary side,” Galati says. “His is a destabilized world, a world that is as porous as the dream world. You see that in all his works.”

Though Murakami is a novelist, Galati says the writer’s sense of drama makes him a good fit for the stage because of the way they “manipulate time and memory and the past.” But novels can penetrate the interior lives of the central characters in ways plays cannot.

“That’s been of great interest to me,” Galati says. “The audience is able to enter inside the sensibilities of the characters through the agency of a narrator, a storyteller. I’ve tried to construct this 90-minute evening in such a way that the two stories we’re doing are interlocking, with actors playing multiple roles.”

To Galati’s knowledge, Murakami has not seen after the quake. “I gather he’s not too keen about hearing his words spoken aloud,” Galati says. “He’s a mysterious guy. He writes a lot about jazz — he’s a very articulate music critic. He and his wife had a jazz club in Tokyo, a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, for about 15 years. He loved it because he could listen to jazz all day, but that’s a hard business to keep going. He compares his process as a writer with jazz musicians, Thelonious Monk in particular, in regard to cadence, rhythm and phrasing. You can feel when you read him that he’s improvising. He has this kind of wonderful sense of how to create a melodic line, how to repeat it, change key and tempo and keep the same motif and melodic cadence but then alter it again.”

Working on this show has inspired Galati to try his hand at another: Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s most recently published (in the U.S.) novel.

“I’m hoping we’ll do it at Steppenwolf next year,” Galati says.

For information about after the quake, visit
Visit Haruki Murakami’s Web site — where he will occasionally answer readers’ questions — here.