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After the Quake

Quake on Stage at The Berkeley Rep

“I am a real frog,” declares a green-gloved and generally Dr. Seussishly-outfitted character from the stage of the Berkeley Repertory Theater. “In fact, I am the sum total of all frogs!” And with these auspicious words, Frog himself sets out -- enlisting only the help of a flabbergasted tax collector called Mr. Katagiri -- to save Tokyo from Worm and his ruinous, subterranean undulations.

Though only a slice of Frank Galati’s theater adaptation “After the Quake” (based on Haruki Murakami’s book of the same name), the scene stands at the heart of this surreal post-disaster narrative. Actually, it’s one narrative among several that Galati -- responsible for a Tony Award-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, among other successes -- weaves expertly together into a tale of people struggling to piece life back together after it’s been shaken apart. Tapestried into a whole, it’s a masterful bit of story-telling and, more specifically, theatrical artistry.

The play roots itself in the aftermath of 1995’s catastrophic Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, Japan (Murakami’s home town), a quake which took the lives of 140,000. Conspicuously, the show’s opening night landed on October 17th, which is the anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake; 12,000 people were made homeless by that disaster. For Murakami, an author who has written most of his life in the United States, took the quake as occasion to return to Japan and engage his homeland. This piece is the result -- and for many in the Bay area with vivid memories of the Loma Prieta’s wreckage, it’s personal.

Offering a glimpse into the shattered lives of a young writer named Junpei, his two old friends (who’ve just gone through a dividing experience of their own: divorce), and their daughter, the show also integrates the aforementioned imaginary narrative of Frog and his confrontation with Worm in the bowels of the earth. Frog and Worm’s battle, however, is the story within the story -- dreamed up by Junpei as he grapples with the haunting nightmares his old friend’s little girl wades through in the weeks after the quake.

Earthquakes reveal -- with devastating violence -- the seams in the seemingly seamless soil beneath us. We’re shaken; we’re divided, sometimes quite literally, from the sidewalks and roadways of our lives by the sudden gashes an earthquake leaves gaping. The brilliance then in Galati’s rendition of this quixotic tale lies in the play’s enactment and engagement of the seams and breaking points that shatter and define our lives. With almost all the actors and actresses filling at least two roles, Galati forces us to confront both the borders between the interwoven narratives as well as the less and less well-defined separations between the characters that any one actor or actress plays.

While at the start, for instance, an actor, e.g. Chicago-product Keong Sim, transitions from Narrator to Frog in darkness, by show’s end Sim has scraped all pretense and is openly pulling from his pocket Frog’s green gloves. Making the shift, and obviously so. Sim’s transformation is, in the end, as blurred as the seams of the inter-penetrated world of narratives and perception which we live in -- until an earthquake comes along to remind us where things break, and how easily they do so.

This is Galati and Murakami’s enduring message: things fall apart, and we put them back together, in part, with our stories. It’s a message that absorbs into the audience without having to be spelled out. And it’s all aided by the restlessly churning soundtrack (including the rigorous, booming version of Norwegian Wood, among other numbers) delivered live by Cellist Jason McDermott and Koto-ist Jeff Wichmann. The show’s 100 minutes whisk by -- though things end on stage with a little too much of a Hollywood happy-ending, it’s not hard to forgive such forgettable finality.

After all, what other opportunity have you to see a man-sized talking frog in Berkeley?

After the Quake
at The Berkeley Rep
Tickets: $16.50 - $50