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Seismic Shifts of the Heart

The subtleties of Haruki Murakami's stories don't always come through onstage.

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After the Quake

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

After a year filled with tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, you might understandably look for insight to Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, a lovely collection of short stories about life after the 1995 Kobe disaster, which claimed more than 5,000 lives. But Murakami's six tales don't deal with epic calamities or their political implications--instead they focus on the quiet aches and nameless fears that put pressure on the tectonic plates of the heart.

For this Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere, adapter-director Frank Galati combines two of the stories in Murakami's 2002 book. In "Honey Pie" a lonely writer, Junpei, still loves a woman he met in college, Sayoko, who married his best friend instead. When her daughter, Sala, suffers nightmares after the quake, Sayoko asks Junpei for help, and he makes up stories about a clever bear to calm the little girl. Galati's invention is to make the second tale, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," part of Junpei's story within a story, as the six-foot amphibian asks a beleaguered, unappreciated bank loan officer, Katagiri, for assistance in fighting a giant worm determined to set off another earthquake in Tokyo. Despite its comic-book outlines, even this narrative is mournfully wistful rather than frenzied. Whether Super-Frog is the loan officer's hallucination or a genuine superhero, he and Katagiri are outsiders who form a touching relationship, and the end presents Katagiri with both loss and the possibility of a richer life. "Honey Pie" ends with Junpei's declaration that he wants "to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love."

After the Quake is different from some of the literature that's attracted Galati in the past: in the late 80s he captured entire eras in the large-scale, populist Grapes of Wrath and the whimsical She Always Said, Pablo, devoted to modernist art, literature, and music. By contrast Murakami addresses the fragile links between ordinary people--and one extraordinary frog--who sometimes have difficulty putting these links into words, especially the emotionally paralyzed writer. Wisely, Steppenwolf is presenting this quiet, formal adaptation in its smaller, newly reconfigured upstairs theater. (The new permanent proscenium works well for After the Quake, but future productions may feel the loss of the old, more flexible space.)

Galati's actors occasionally struggle to make the lines sound spontaneous, especially in the beginning, when their measured cadences suggest story theater. This presentational quality obscures the complexities of Murakami's point of view and tone, which cries out for performers who can deliver casual observations and harsh truths evenhandedly, in the manner of Chekhov. And though the two main characters are faced with major decisions--Junpei wrestles with asking Sayoko, now divorced, to marry him, and Katagiri must summon the courage to believe in Super-Frog--there's an occasional air of forced jollity, particularly in the early "Honey Pie" segments. The attraction between Junpei (Hanson Tse) and Sayoko (Aiko Nakasone) doesn't ring true until later in the 90-minute show, reaching its apex only when Sayoko and Sala (adorable Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker, alternating in the role with Tiffany Fujiwara) play a goofy game involving the one-handed removal of a bra. The relaxation and ease with which Nakasone plays the game should be infused into the earlier scenes, especially the flashbacks with shy college boy Junpei and the more aggressive Takatsuki (Andrew Pang), who eventually becomes a hard-charging reporter as well as Sayoko's husband.

One of Murakami's themes is the saving grace of storytelling in the aftermath of news coverage of a tragedy: Super-Frog refers often to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and Junpei's stories for Sala are an antidote to the horrifying images of the quake she's seen on TV. So more could definitely be made of the differences between the two writers' careers--the successful Takatsuki has little interest in literature while the little-known Junpei bemoans the life of a short-story writer, saying, "I write them. They print them. Nobody reads them. The short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule." But literary treatments of the characters' own tales--story theater and the overuse of narrated exposition--tend to flatten them out, to erase the tension between the real and the imagined, between the bittersweet past and the fearsome future. When the characters' storytelling helps them gain insight into themselves, the play sings. But when their realizations are simply explained to the audience, a vaguely homiletic tone undermines the drama.

Still, After the Quake can be charming and affecting. Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's score, played live on cello and koto by Jason McDermott and Jeff Wichmann, gives the love triangle poignancy. As Super-Frog, Keong Sim is both comic and commanding in his goggles and knobby green gloves, and he's well balanced by Pang, who also plays the nerdish, driven bank officer. James F. Ingalls lights James Schuette's set, a simple curved wall of horizontal gray slats, with dreamy evocativeness. And Galati offers an intelligent, respectful take on Murakami's tales. What's missing is a sense of urgency in the characters, the drive to overcome past mistakes and current cataclysms through the force of imagination and human connection.

When: Through 2/19: Tue-Sun 7:30 PM. Also 3 PM Sat-Sun.

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, upstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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