Berkeley Rep’s Great Wave crashes

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Great Wave includes (from left) Yurié Collins as Reiko, Julian Cihi as Tetsuo, and Jo Mei as Hanako. Below: Grace Chan Ng as Hana is interrogated by David Shih as Soldier One and Cindy Im as Soldier Two in Francis Turnly’s play. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened its new season Sept. 19, a new era with a new artistic director in Johanna Pfaelzer, with the American premiere of Francis Turnly’s epic drama The Great Wave.

For three hours, the play aims to depict the effect of the political on the personal and the personal on the political, and at its most successful, it conveys a powerful sense of how ferocious, tenacious and depthless the love of a mother can be. But for much of its running time, The Great Wave is superficial and performed with a surprisingly topsy-turvy level of conviction by its cast.

Director Mark Wing-Davey layers an intricate sound design (by Bray Poor) and an even more intricate projection design (by Tara Knight) onto the play in a way that makes it seem he doesn’t fully trust Turnly or the actors enough to convey the emotional weight of the show. And he may be right.

The play’s first act feels like a proloooooonged prologue in which a young Japanese woman disappears from a beach during a storm under mysterious circumstances. The mystery is solved – for us not her family – very shortly when we learn the woman, Hanako (Jo Mei) was abducted by operatives from North Korea along with more than a dozen other Japanese citizens in a diabolical plot (based on a true story!) to train North Korean terrorists to effectively infiltrate South Korea posing as Japanese visitors.

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In Hanako’s case, she is training a Korean woman named Jung Sun (the excellent Cindy Im) all the while being brainwashed into the North Korean way of complete and total abasement and lack of individuality at the feat of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. Meanwhile, back in Japan, Hanako’s mom (Sharon Omi), sister (Yurié Collins) and friend (Julian Cihi) somehow know that she’s still alive and work feverishly to get the attention of their government officials, who mostly look the other way.

This is one of those plays where words drift across the stage along the lines of “six years later” or “two years later,” and each time that happens, it feels like any dramatic momentum the play had dissipates. Act 2 gains more traction as Hanako’s family comes closer to finding her and Hanako herself is faced with some difficult choices involving the life she came from, the life she’s living now with a government-ordered husband (Stephen Hu), a daughter (Grace Chan Ng) and a country in famine.

Though Hanako’s life in Korea seems to evolve over the 25 years, the lives of her family seem to exist only in service to finding her, and as such feel dramatically inert. There’s a parade of time-going-by wigs along with an attempt at a love story, but mother, sister and friend simply aren’t interesting enough to inspire our investment in their emotional lives or their complete devotion to finding Hanako.

It certainly doesn’t’ help that the opening-night performance was rough. The set malfunctioned noisily at one point, and actors seemed in need of more rehearsal (one two-person scene veered noticeably off the rails with muddled dialogue and sound effect cues).

The Great Wave is fitfully engaging, but its most potentially most rewarding moments are drained of dramatic impact or cut off much too quickly. There’s a big story to tell here, but this is is a Wave that definitely spends too much time splashing in the shallows.

Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave continues through Oct. 27 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$97, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Berkeley Rep’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre-less theatrics

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David Barlow (left) is Pericles and Annapurna Sriram is Marina in Mark Wing-Davey’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Evan Zes (left), Sriram (center) and Rami Margron tussle over virtue and capitalism in a later chapter of the Pericles saga. Photos courtesy of

There’s a rough beauty to director Mark Wing-Davey’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The industrial look of the bi-level set by Douglas Stein and Peter Ksander indicates that this will be a utilitarian telling of this dubious Shakespeare tale – dubious only because we don’t really know how much (if any) of the play the Bard actually wrote.

From the giant crane that hoists everything from crystal chandeliers to pirates’ nets to the goddess Diana, to the sliding metal doors that bang and clang during scene transitions, this is a production that revs and lurches like an engine that could use a little more tuning

But that’s not to say that this re-imagining of Pericles by Wing-Davey and Jim Calder isn’t entertaining or even, at times, quite captivating. The creative team, also including costumer Meg Neville, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Jake Rodriguez and composer/music director Marc Gwinn and his three-piece band, have a lot of tricks up their respective sleeves, and they employ a lot of moving parts to dress up a tale that can always use a good dressing up.

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Wing-Davey and Calder have also done some heavy editing, which streamlines this choppy tale into just over two hours. The ensemble of eight plays multiple roles save for David Barlow as the titular prince. They bring a zesty humor to the proceedings, which range from the truly lovely (Pericles brings corn to a starving nation and we watch as their coffers fill with the golden food) to the ribald (Pericles’ wedding night with Thaïsa on an ultra-bouncy bed is a hoot) to the just plain goofy (as knights prepare to joust for the hand of a fair maiden, one of the contenders turns out to be Batman complete with sidekick, Robin).

James Carpenter plays several kings (one horrific, one kindly) with commanding authority and looks particularly good in a robe covered with images of his face. Jessica Kitchens is also effective in contrasting a sweet princess with a deceitful queen (whose gowns have shoulders to be envied by the most fashionable quarterbacks).

Because this play is so full of incident, it helps to have an engaging narrator (Anita Carey) to help stitch the adventures together, and it’s even better to have a narrator with a lilting Northern England accent.

The actors hurtle through the various episodes with verve, though they tend to get upstaged by props and scenery from time to time. It’s hard to compete with a full-on drenching from a storm at sea, especially when a realistic looking baby doll shows up. The contrast between hyper-theatrical, stretch-your-imagination tricks and the occasional human moments 
can be jarring.

Wing-Davey’s Pericles labors to make the most of a fractured script, but in the end, this take on the tale isn’t nearly as beguiling as California Shakespeare Theater’s 2008 production (read the review here). In that version, director Joel Sass used a storytelling approach (also with eight actors) that turned out to be as enchanting as it was moving.

This production has some dazzle and some heft and definitely some humor, but all that wacky set-up, which is really just an excuse for an impossible, tear-jerking happy ending, is practically for naught. The one thing that’s missing, amid all the storms and anachronisms and hard-working theatrics, is heart.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre continues through May 26 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit