Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a master of the everyday surreal: he creates ordinary characters – bank clerks, university students, data processors – and builds around them fantastic dream-like stories. Like Dorothy thrust into the land of Oz, Murakami’s people find themselves in positions of great and often unwanted power. This applies to his wonderful short story collection after the quake (Murakami insisted on the lower case spelling for the English title). after the quake consists of stories inspired by the horrific 1995 Kobe earthquake. In the best (imo) one, “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” a six feet tall Frog visits Mr. Katagiri, a mild-mannered salaryman, and informs him that the two of them will descend into the underworld and fight and defeat Worm. Thus they will prevent a devastating Tokyo earthquake. “Why me?” Katagiri keeps asking.
Frank Galati, the accomplished Chicago dramatist who specializes in adaptations (The Grapes Of Wrath, As I Lay Dying) adapted after the quake for Steppenwolf Theatre. And now a lovely production of the piece by the estimable Walking Shadow Theatre Company (performing at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center, through May 21) is up and running.
Galati weaves together two separate short stories in his play, “Honey Pie” along with the previously mentioned “Superfrog.” This dual narrative is an oft-used Murakami technique (e.g., Kafka On The Shore), but Murakami doesn’t employ it in after the quake; it’s a Galati addition. Does it diminish the material? Arguably; it allows us to dismiss the Frog story as a product of “Honey Pie” short story writer Junpei’s over-heated imagination. By the same token, though, connecting the two stories gives “Honey Pie” substance it wouldn’t otherwise have.
No matter. This is rich, subtle material, its romantic sweetness nicely balanced by its deadly serious intention. The play (which runs for an intermissionless ninety minutes) uses long sections of the Murakami text in Book-It style narration: characters frequently turn and address the audience directly. The formality of this is perfect; it’s not just a love story (“Honey Pie”) or a dream-like melodrama (“Superfrog”). There is something else going on, something mysterious, and it keeps us riveted. The payoff, which I will refrain from describing, thrills.
The performances are pitch perfect. Director Amy Rummenie (one of Walking Shadow’s artistic directors) keeps the romance at bay and prevents the actors from getting bogged down in the moment-by-moment sweetness of the play. Her production moves crisply and incisively. The sturdy (and marvelous) Kurt Kwan effectively gives us two characters, Katagiri and Takasuki. Eric Sharp plays Junpei slightly disheveled and confused, but we – and he – slowly realize that he has tapped into something frightening. He faces it resolutely. Katie Bradley charms utterly as Sayoko; I found it hard to take my eyes off her. As Frog, Brant Miller is both self-deprecating and scary, his green gloves and bent hands amazingly expressive. Finally, there’s kindergartner Natalie Tran as Sala: major league sweet, having infectious fun.
Kudos to the designers! The set (Steve Kath) is simple and perfect, a Japanese platform and screen, with a table that very niftily goes up and down. The lighting (Peter W. Mitchell) makes all this even better. The costumes (Andrea Gross) and sound (Montana Johnson) are lovely.
Cellist Cory P. Grossman performs almost constantly and although I couldn’t see him from where I was sitting (the vagaries of the theater), the music is virtually a character of its own, and fits the action exquisitely.
That this play goes up so soon after Japan’s recent quake/tsunami has given the production an unwelcome resonance. Walking Shadow handles this well: some visual material has been eliminated and the producers are properly aware of and respectful to Japan’s current suffering. Don’t let this keep you away.
For more info on John Olive please visit his website.