Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

after the quake
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre

Kayla Tucker and Hanson Tse
There may be no deeper, no more fundamental question in life than asking the extent to which we have the ability to ensure our own survival. Can we save ourselves through our own good and wise choices, our courage or even through gaining the protection of those more powerful? Life becomes frightening or even pointless without the belief that we generally have some control over our well-being. Can anything be more devastating than the realization that acts of God or pure randomness can end life? The 1995 Kobe earthquake inspired Murakami to write after the quake a collection of six short stories all dealing with the aftermath of that disaster. For this stage adaptation, Frank Galati has cleverly woven two of the stories, "honey bear" and "super-frog saves tokyo" into a concise one-act meditation on human powerlessness.

The characters of "honey bear" provide the framework. Junpei is a young writer of fantasy fiction who has carried a torch for Sayoko since losing her to his best friend Takatsuki shortly after the three met as freshmen in college. Takatsuki (Andrew Pang) and Sayoko (Aiko Nakasone) have recently split up after years of marriage and Junpei (Hanson Tse), who has remained a close family friend over the years, is determined to protect Sayoko and her young daughter Sala (alternately played by Tiffany Fujiwara and Kayla Tucker). Sala is experiencing nightmares in the aftermath of the earthquake, and Sayoko has called Junpei over to their home to help calm Sala. He is able to do so through telling her one of his stories, about a bear with special powers. Sala's description of her nightmares in which an "Earthquake Man" appears to her inspire Junpei to write a new story, one which will represent a level of writing more important than he considers his children's fiction.

The back story of "honey bear" - which follows the meeting of Junpei, Sayoko and Takatsuki at college through the courtship, marriage and divorce of Sayoko and Takatsuki - is interspersed with "super-frog saves tokyo." Junpei narrates the "super-frog" story in which an under-recognized loan officer named Katagiri (Pang) is chosen by a giant frog (named simply "Frog" and played by Keong Sim)to help him fight a giant worm (named "Worm") that is threatening Tokyo from beneath the city. Katagiri is never entirely certain if Frog is a dream, though Frog assures him he is not and in the end Katagiri is not even sure if he in fact helped to save Tokyo. As Katagiri is drawn into heroism by Frog, Junpei is finally able to win Sayoko, at least partially overcoming his feelings of worthlessness. He vows to protect Sayoko and Sala and it appears they will begin a life as a family.

The production has a dreamlike tone, established by James Schuette's minimal set of a curved stainless steel grid upstage (enhanced by a few set pieces), the quiet, nocturnal lighting design by James Ingalls, and underscoring composed by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman. That score, performed on western and Japanese stringed instruments (cello and koto), complements the visual design by ingeniously suggesting the setting as present-day Japan, with both western and eastern influences. The score, mostly Japanese-sounding, even unexpectedly brings in references to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" (the title of another book by Murakami) and "You Light Up My Life." (The influence of Joe Brooks, composer of that song as well as Broadway's In My Life is unexpectedly wide this Fall). Time and place is further established by the heroic, fantastical content of "super-frog saves tokyo," which suggests the Japanese art form of animé. The pairing of the fantasy "super-frog" with the realism of "honey bear" evokes the blending of live action with animation seen in recent films like Kill Bill and Sin City in content, though not in visual style.

after the quake proposes storytelling as therapy for primal fears. Galati has "honey bear" told by Sim as an unnamed "narrator." As Junpei creates the story of "super-frog" he becomes its onstage narrator while Sim plays Frog. At other times in the action Junpei, Sayoko and Takatsuki narrate from their characters' points-of-view, but speaking in a detached third person. Further, Galati directs the cast in a presentational and monotone style that reinforces the piece's theatricality, keeping us mindful that we are viewing a story. This is true to his concept, but risks distancing the audience from the characters and gives the performances a two-dimensional feeling that lacks much spontaneity. Still, it's a beautiful and haunting production on a timeless and universal theme, told through contemporary and international artistic vocabulary. That these diverse elements all have resonance to an American audience is a statement on its own.

after the quake will run through February 19, 2006. Curtain times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. There will be Wednesday matinees on January 18 and 25, February 1, 8, and 15, 2006 at 2 p.m. There will be no Sunday evening performances January 22, 29, February 5,12 and 19. Additionally, there will be no performances on November 24, December 24 and 25, 2005; or on January 1, 2006. Tickets are $20 - $60 and can be ordered online at, by phone at 312-335-1650 or at the box office. Steppenwolf is at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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