Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Great Wave
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Caroline, or Change

Paul Juhn, Cindy Im, and Jo Mei
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre:
Waves are formed by friction between wind and water. When wind blows across the surface of an ocean, the disturbance creates a wave crest, which uses the particles of water as a way to transfer its energy. Waves can form across thousands of miles of ocean, sometimes traveling for days before making landfall and releasing all that pent-up energy.

Likewise, The Great Wave, a new play by Irish-Japanese playwright Francis Turnly, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and directed by Mark Wing-Davey, begins as a kitchen sink drama, then builds into a socio-political thriller with tsunami-esque ambitions—that ultimately fizzle into little more than an exceptionally breezy day at the beach.

As the play begins, it's a stormy night in 1979 in a coastal Japanese town. Seventeen-year old Hanako (Jo Mei) and her older sister Reiko (Yurié Collins) are escorted home from school by their mother Etsuko (Sharon Omi), who quickly rushes back out into the storm to pull an extra shift at the cafe where she works, leaving the girls to study. But their friend Tetsuo (Julian Cihi) soon arrives and convinces them they should go to the beach to watch the giant waves roll in.

In the next scene, however, Hanako has gone missing. Swept out to sea? Run away? Or, as the townsfolk believe, murdered and her body disposed of by Tetsuo? The police (represented by Takeshi, played by David Shih) have no leads, and Reiko's campaign of putting up missing person posters all over town goes nowhere as well.

When we next see Hanako, she is a prisoner in North Korea, kidnapped and promised she will be allowed to return home once she learns Korean and teaches a local girl to speak Japanese.

Years pass and though her family never loses hope, Hanako—in true Stockholm Syndrome fashion—slowly becomes more and more Korean, subsuming her identity into the broader groupthink of the collective cult of personality of Kim Il-sung.

The setup here is fascinating, and the story ripe for drama. Intrigue. High-level political machinations. A family's quest. A young man wrongly tarred with a horrific crime. A peek inside a secretive culture under the thumb of a despot. The elements are all there, but the balance is all wrong. At a nearly three-hour running time (with 15-minute intermission), there's plenty of time to dive into all this drama, but the fascinating political and bureaucratic moves feel tacked on, the accusations against Tetsuo all happen off stage and are merely reported to us rather than being played out on stage.

The story Turnly has fashioned is based on historical incidents (the North Koreans did in fact kidnap multiple Japanese and South Korean citizens, for various purposes), but it fails to create the sense of tension the events depicted would seem to warrant. This is due in part to Turnly's characters, who mostly lack dimension (Tetsuo's posturing youth who grows into a crusading journalist being the notable exception), and his use of language, which is prosaic at its best and banal at its worst, but also to uninspired performances from most of the cast, who seem to declaim their lines in the style of a cold reading, rather than coming from an emotional connection with their characters.

It's possible the rehearsal time for this production was limited, for in addition to the mostly stiff and uninspired performances, there were several technical glitches—sound cues happening at the wrong time, a performer reaching in his pocket for a cell phone that the prop master had failed to place there, and a door that fell off its hinges, dangling for several moments before finally crashing to the stage—at the performance I attended. Though, to their credit, the technical team for The Great Wave have done a marvelous job otherwise, with a massive set (that resonates with the scale of North Korean exhibitions of military and communal might), gorgeous, abstract projections, and thundering, realistic sound.

Waves are vehicles of energy, and water merely the medium through which the energy passes. Though there was great promise for a sweeping story encompassing family, authority, bureaucracy, and the all-too-often craven uses of power, The Great Wave ends up being little more than a dramatic ripple.

The Great Wave runs through October 27, 2019, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm, with additional matinees Thursday September 26 and October 24. Tickets range from $30-$97. Tickets and information are available online at or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.