Quirky, interweaving Japanese tales are rough silk onstage
Beguiling enigma of a play woven from short stories by author Haruki Murakama
Last summer, The Rogue Theatre traveled to India to present its production of “Shipwreaked.” This summer, they’re staying closer to home and taking it easy.
Thus “after the quake,” an adaptation of two short stories by world famous Japanese author, Haruki Murakama, presented over a short run. Although it has all the qualities of a typical Rogue production, “after the quake” is more a divertimento than the usual full symphony, charming in its subtly and small scale, rather than overwhelming with its mass and depth.
The two disparate works, one a comic book fantasy where a mousy hero saves Tokyo, all unbeknownst to its residents, the other a gentle, seemingly tragic, love triangle, are threaded into a beguiling enigma of a play that eschews logic for a deeper, primal response.
Murakama wrote the stories of “after the quake” (he insisted on lower case) in an artistic outpouring following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 6,000 people. The stories explore the personal impact of a national disaster and how those not directly affected could still be teleported to existential self-examination.
A skillful adaptation
American playwright Frank Galati, a veteran of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company and a professor at Northwestern University skillfully melds the disparate stories, “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” and “Honey Pie,” into an organic, though not necessarily logical, whole. He makes “Honey Pie” protagonist and writer Junpei the author of “Superfrog” to facilitate the story within a story. The inevitable compare/contrast of the two forms subverts rational thinking as manga fantasy meets Ibseneque realism.
Junpei, played by Javon Nelson, is a socially isolated literature nerd whose only friends are his former college chums, Sayoko, (Marissa Garcia) an embodiment of demure femininity, and Takasuki, (Owen Virgin) a glib, self-confident reporter who initially drew them together into the tightly closed troika, à la Harry, Ron and Hermione.
Though Takasuki gets the girl, we see how much better Sayoko and Junpei are for each other. Despite his broken heart, Junpei remains best friends with the couple, even getting to name their daughter, Sala, played delightfully by first-grader Larisa Cota in her stage debut. Junpei entertains Sala with storytelling when she struggles with portentous nightmares following the earthquake.
Stories within stories
One of those stories is “Superfrog.” Owen Virgin does double duty as the dislikeable Takasuki and the dubious hero, Katagiri, an ironically meek collection officer for a large bank. Virgin alternates between the two characters with posture and expression, often transitioning physically in front of the audience, so that we have no problem identifying which story he is in at any given moment. The UA senior gets a workout and performs admirably to Rogue’s high level.
Matt Bowdren also juggles two roles as Superfrog (“Please, call me Frog,” he says nonchalantly) and a Narrator, who helps integrate and fill in Murakami’s stories, along with Junpei’s exposition. Bowdren continues his mastery of not-quite-human characterization, having recently played the man turning into a cockroach lead in Rogue’s production of Kafka’s existential “Metamorphosis.” His Frog is courteous, courageous, yet still alien, creating a sort of Kabuki of the Absurd.
Marissa Garcia, another Rogue veteran, plays Sayoko with endearing grace. It’s impossible to tell how much Sayoko’s controls her own fate and how much is her allowing herself to be swept along. She also plays a second character briefly as Katagiri’s nurse after his and Frog’s battle underground with the villainous Worm.
Nic Adams, former artistic director of Rogue’s late night Now Theatre franchise, returns from New York to direct. He sets a natural pace and adds suitable little touches, like having all the actors barefoot throughout or Virgin’s own onstage metamorphoses.
“after the quake” is a quirky, pleasant presentation. Despite the fantasy element, it is not a children’s play, inevitably addressing sex (and love) among the three friends with some explicit language. Lasting only 90 minutes with no intermission, Murikami’s seemingly gossamer musings on the human condition are nonetheless profound.