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The Telltale Frog and other Fables for Our Time

Kayla Tucker and Hanson Tse in Steppenwolf's "after the quake," based on the work of Haruki Murakami, adapted and directed by ensemble member Frank Galati.

Review of “after the quake”
Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 North Halsted Sreet
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Oct. 20-February 19, 2006
Tickets $20-$60. Box Office: (312)335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org
Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky

Every night, some time after midnight, seven-year-old Sala wakes up in hysterics after dreaming that Earthquake Man has nearly succeeded in grabbing her and putting her into a dark, narrow box. The only way to calm her down and get her back to sleep is for her mother to summon Junpei, a family friend and fiction writer, whose stories of intrepid anthropomorphized animals always do the trick.

The premise of “after the quake,” which Frank Galati adapted from a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami, is that the horrors of our imaginations match and perhaps exceed the horrors of any natural or even social disaster. Murakami’s stories were written following the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. In the play, the fiction writer, Junpei, is a native of Kobe who has turned his back on his family after they refused to support his decision to study literature and pursue a dual career in journalism and fiction. Even when they perish in the Kobe earthquake, years after he has finished university, he neither deals with his loss nor returns to his birthplace. We realize that Junpei has long been incapable of acknowledging any kind of love, making him an emotional victim of his own private Earthquake Man even before the actual ataclysm occurred.

Junpei, played by Hanson Tse with an appealing, low keyed diffidence that quickly generates both interest and sympathy, is the linchpin for the two stories that partner each other in “after the quake.” His personal story goes back to his university days, when he met little Sala’s parents and the three became fast friends. While it was clear to all three that the beautiful, intelligent Sayoko (Aiko Nakasone) was Junpei’s soulmate, he did nothing to prevent his brash, anti-intellectual buddy Takatsuki (Andrew Pang) from wooing and wedding her. Intertwined with the private lives story is a huge social allegory that Junpei is penning. In it, a life size frog approaches a nebbishy, affectless, get-a-life accountant to present a plan to save Tokyo from the disastrous earthquake that the frog knows (from his secret sources, of course) is due to hit in three days and expected to result in 150,000 deaths. One of the play’s minor themes is the fragility of that “intensive collectivity known as city” and the importance of people like the accountant, Katagiri, who see themselves as “less than ordinary.” (Andrew Pang’s transformation from slick, ambitious, journalist on the take to self-effacing, nearly invisible bean counter is masterful.) If 9/11 was an obvious referent for American audiences as “after the quake” was being developed, hurricanes Katrina and Rita only hammered home its various points.

Galati’s method is to focus on the human agents as storytellers and to create both mood and interextuality with a live music score for cello and koto. (For instance, I was puzzled by the strains of “Norwegian Wood” that kept showing up in the music until I read in a program note that that is the title of one of Murakami’s other books. Now I’m wondering what other subtleties I missed.) The nearly-bare stage is punctuated with entryways into the slatted, semi-circular wall that frames the playing area, and the actors, three of whom double in roles, slip in and out of these, inhabiting whichever story is going on. (Scenic design is by James Schuette.) The splashiest transformation belongs to Keong Sim as the engaging Narrator who seamlessly morphs into Super Frog, a lithe, smooth-talking con man in an expensive suit complemented by apple green stretch gloves with matching socks and glasses. (Costumes are by Mara Blumenfeld). In a winkingly clever gesture, the program doesn’t list the character Super Frog, leaving us to contemplate the intertwining of guide-the-audience voices and, perhaps, to conjure that college lit crit question of the “reliable” (or un) narrator. After all, would you go all out to save your city from a chthonic monster named Worm who causes earthquakes when he’s angry if your insider tip came from an elephantine amphibian in Armani?

Junpei’s task is to finish his story, and the play makes it clear that this means the one he knows he is writing but also the one he comes to understand as his life. When Sala’s last nightmare has Earthquake Man coming not just for herself but for her mother and Junpei as well, he knows that he has, despite the loss of relatives in the Kobe disaster, a family – the ultimate “intensive collectivity” -- after all. [Chansky]

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