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 www.berkeleyrep.org.