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January 6, 2006

Steppenwolf satisfies with cerebral After the Quake

One of the hardest tasks for any writer is the adaptation of a book into a film or a play. Doing so ensures harsh criticism from all sides. Nearly everyone expects this new version to be an insult to the original.

I admit that rarely have I seen an adaptation fully represent an originally good piece of art, but every once in a while, something comes close. After the Quake, showing at Steppenwolf Theatre, is one of those cases, which is remarkable considering the complexity of the original author, Haruki Murakami.

The play is based on the Haruki Murakami book of short stories After the Quake, which takes place in the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Although the book’s title is used for the play, only two of the six short stories are seen in the adaptation.

The two stories have very little (factually) in common, yet the play manages to intertwine the tales magnificently, striking a middle ground that gives even deeper meaning to the already vast stories. This task couldn’t have been easy for Frank Galati, but his final product is most admirable. Haruki Murakami is known for his confusing plot lines and convoluted messages, but Galati transfers his style to the stage well.

If you haven’t heard much of Murakami yet, you will. The winner of Japan’s Yomiuri Literary Prize, Murakami is new and different, as well as intensely inspiring. Refusing to fully subscribe to the Western form of the novel, Murakami leaves readers utterly confused, yet strangely satisfied, at the completion of each of his epic tales. His style strikes a unique balance between Eastern and Western literature. Murakami has nearly single-handedly created a new genre of fiction by placing very normal people into situations of strong magical and spiritual realism.

The frame story of the play revolves around a relationship between three college friends: Sayoko, Takatsuki, and Junpei. The friendship becomes complicated by the marriage of two (Sayoko and Takatsuki) and the untold love of the third (Junpei). Inside this, though, is a separate story, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” Although the two tales were unconnected as short stories, Galati chose to combine them and add a few of his own ideas.

As for the acting, there are nine characters and only five actors. Steppenwolf has spread their arms over Murakami and Galati’s large world and covers it beautifully. Aiko Nakasone, Andrew Pang, Keong Sim, Hanson Tse, Tiffany Fujiwara, and Kayla Tucker make up a cast that successfully engages the audience for the full 90 minutes.

Tse, playing what most would consider the main character, Junpei, drives the emotional side of the play. He masterfully performs a handful of soliloquies that truly bring the audience into the story. Nakasone and Pang, playing supporting characters on the “Honey Pie” side of the play, do not disappoint, and Pang’s other character, Katagiri, shows his acting range. Although his portrayal of Takatsuki is average, Pang is remarkably funny as the nervous Katagiri. But charged with the most demanding task of all, Keong Sim, a graduate of the University of Chicago, delivers something very special.

Sim’s task of playing both a giant frog and Murakami himself is by no means simple, yet both characters manage to blend with the unfamiliar landscape. Murakami wrote the super-frog story with the knowledge that much would be left up to interpretation, an idea Keong translates well into the play. In addition to the ambiguity formed by the original story, Galati makes the actual character of Murakami a topic of interpretation as well.

“I think Murakami was involved in a similar love triangle, but with two women,” Keong said in reference to the frame story, “Honey Pie.” “It’s interesting to think how much of this story is autobiographical.” Galati intentionally paralleled Murakami and the main character, Junpei—an aspiring novelist—throughout the play, and Keong is presented the task of carrying out this connection. While acting the part, Keong tries to look at “Junpei as a younger version of [his] character, the narrator.”

This wasn’t a connection Keong created of his own accord, though. Many times through the play, Junpei and the character of Murakami are seen simultaneously narrating the story. In trying to create an adaptation from Murakami, Galati added his own depth to the plot and offered something not stated in the actual text. With this connection between author and character, he creates an extra layer to the tale.

After textually increasing the depth of the story, Galati takes it even further. His most ambitious addition is the introduction of music as another character. Jason McDermott playing the cello and Jeff Wichmann plucking the koto combine to add an inimitable flavor to the background of the performance.

For the most part, the play runs without a hitch. Only rarely is the audience taken out of this Galati/Murakami world. At times, the house speakers are used to severely change the mood that has been generated by the beautiful music, and once, a frighteningly loud gunshot rings throughout the theatre. As the end approaches, much of the story extends beyond the scope of a play. Murakami intended for the imagination to paint his picture, and a stage cannot do justice to parts of what he described, no matter how many special effects are used.

The play was a great experience. Leaving it, I felt as if I had read an entire Murakami novel in an hour and a half. If you aren’t ready to plunge yourself into deep thought, then this might not be the play for you. But if you want to tease your brain and listen to some great music—including “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles—this is the place to be.