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.