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Feeling the Aftershocks

An adaptation of short stories surrounding the Kobe earthquake works, but could be better



On Jan. 17, 1995, an earthquake registering 7.2 rocked the city of Kobe, Japan, killing more than 5,000 people and leaving 300,000 homeless. Two months later, a terrorist group let loose sarin gas in Tokyo's subway system, killing 11 and crippling dozens more. It's hard to grasp fully what two closely occurring events like these do to a population, although perhaps we can recall our own national response to the Sept. 11 attack and its aftermath, and our collective fear and anger after the Jan. 8 slaughter at a Safeway in Tucson. There are individual tragedies, for sure, and there are reverberations even for those who were not directly harmed by the events.

Haruki Murakami is a writer who grew up in Kobe but now resides and teaches in the U.S. His parents were left homeless by the earthquake. In 2001, his nonfiction book Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche was published, exploring tangible consequences in the lives of survivors. But in 2000, he had published a collection of six short stories entitled after the quake, which was his more literary take on what happens when our lives are shaken.

The Rogue Theatre is presenting an adaptation of Murakami's work by Frank Galati, who blended two of the stories, "Honey Pie" and "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," to produce a work for the stage. Galati is a longtime member of the company at the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and his stage version of after the quake premiered there in 2005.

There are always challenges when a work goes through the process of translation—Jay Rubin translated Murakami's collection from the Japanese—and then adaption into another genre altogether, which is what we see here. One hopes that an adaptation can be faithful to the voice of the original's author, while transforming it into a different artistic form altogether. Although the theater's unique language offers many opportunities for translating Murakami's voice so that it speaks in new ways, that isn't taken advantage of to the fullest here.

The theatrical version involves a story within a story. The action is framed by honey pie, in which we meet Junpei (Javan Nelson), a writer, who has been called upon by his longtime friend Sayoko (Marissa Garcia) to come to the home she shares with her daughter, Sala (young Larisa Cota). The child has been having horrible nightmares about the Earthquake Man, who is coming to stuff her in a box much too small for her. Sala can only be soothed, it seems, by Junpei's stories, one of which involves a bear, Masakichi, who has no friends, and Tonkichi, a bear who is Masakichi's enemy.

Junpei, Sayoko and Takatsuki (Owen Virgin) were close friends in college, and Takatsuki married Sayoko, even though Junpei was in love with her. He was too shy to declare his love, but now his friends are divorced and Junpei is trying to find the courage to change. He determines he will start by writing stories of a different type from those he is known for. Junpei narrates as his new story comes to life for us, which is actually another story in Murakami's collection, "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo." A 6-foot-foot tall frog (Matt Bowdren, who also serves as the narrator) appears to Katagiri (Virgin, also doubling up), a diminutive, nebbishy debt collector, demanding Katagiri's help in preventing a deadly earthquake in Tokyo caused by Worm, a horrible creature who lives underground. Beyond Katagiri's disbelief in the mere presence of Frog, he is also shocked to think that he could be of help in such an enterprise. Frog, who loves to quote Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad and Hemingway, claims it is exactly ordinary people like Katagiri that the world relies on, and that Frog wishes to save.

The two stories are blended, and the switch back and forth between the two is never confusing, thanks in large part to the actors. And as often is the case with adaptations, there is quite a bit of narration, which can often detract from the theater's requirement to show, not tell. But because of the stylized nature of the production, this is not an issue. It also helps that we hear Murakami's fine prose in the narration.

Director Nic Adams has chosen a simple and sparse production style, which is fine. We switch from parable to the world of dreams to straight storytelling with ease, and we don't need a lot of "stuff" to make this happen. But there isn't always enough play between the two stories to give us a sense of momentum, of movement, of allowing us to see what is changing, particularly to Junpei, after the ground has shifted.

Adams also fails to utilize some theatrical elements that could add so much to evoke and underscore the themes and action. I'm thinking of music, in particular. This is rather ironic because the Rogue regularly places great emphasis on sound and music as a part of its productions. Music is an integral part of the language of theater, and a judicious use of it here could really give Galati's adaptation of Murakami's stories an element it needs to speak that language.

Although it has the potential to be more, Rogue's after the quake is an intriguing though quiet embodiment of Murakami's meditations on the personal aftershocks which occur when our world gets rocked, be it by natural disasters or much more private tragedies.  The performances are solid, there is a celebration of whimsy and the surreal, and Adams and his crew find plenty of humor and high-spiritedness in their storytelling.  But the piece is missing something—a more theatrically conceived sense of poetry, or mystery, perhaps—which could make a good production even more powerful.

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