On a lovely Sunday afternoon, the first in a long while, it seemed a little sad that my friend and I were heading into a dark theater for a rather dark-subject story: Japan after the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995. But After the Quake by Haruki Murakami as performed by the Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the People’s Center ended up bringing smiles, much like sunshine would have.
Per the press release, “Murakami is an internationally recognized novelist whose work mixes American pop culture with Japanese tradition. He is the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation.”
After the Quake is the title of Murakami’s 2002 short story collection. Two select stories, “Honey Pie” and “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” are intertwined to create this production (adapted for the stage by Frank Galati), much like a graphic novel illustrating Shakespeare: life-like illustrative elements meeting great storytelling. The director, Amy Rummenie, explains in a program note that there was “a lot of soul searching about how this play, essentially lighthearted and dreamlike, worked when pitted agains the painful reality of true devastation (referring to recent disasters in Japan). […] We focused on the strengths at the core of the story, its language and characters […] keeping Murakami’s inherent simplicity at the forefront of every moment. The results have (reinforced) the play’s ideas on the importance of everyday honor, perseverance and the fragility of daily existence.”
A 90-minute, uninterrupted performance flows gracefully with outstanding acting by a small but experienced cast and a rock star production team, which includes stage manager Sarah Holmberg, set designer Steve Kath, lighting designer Peter Mitchell, sound designer Montana Johnson, costumer designer Andrea M. Gross, and others. A very simple stage set complements the rather complicated presentation which is part narrative, part dream sequence (or not?), with more traditional scripting. Aside from the act that portrays the very first introduction of the “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” story, it flowed seamlessly and both my friend and I were entranced with the seemingly effortless transitions.
To summarize the story: Once upon a time there were three great college friends who made it through a misunderstood and angst-filled love triangle. Eric Sharp plays Junpei, now a middle-aged, self-searching writer who is still in love with Sayoko, his unrequited love college sweetheart. Sayoko (Katie Bradley) is now married to Takatsuki (Kurt Kwan), the third in the trio, who although a very nice guy, remains a bit of a egocentric “player.” Sayoko and Takatsuki have one daughter, Sala (Natalie Tran), who is haunted by the Earthquake Man—a character who visits in her dreams striking terror in her and reminding her of the earthquake she sees in too many news accounts on television. Junpei helps Sala through numerous broken nights by weaving stories which calm her. One of those stories is of a very ordinary businessman, Katagiri (also played by Kurt Kwan), who is selected by Frog (not Mr. Frog, just Frog, please) played by Brant Miller, to save Tokyo by slaying an evil worm that lives beneath Tokyo. It ends up being a tale of many things: friendship, betrayal (of self and of others), courage, dignity, love (of self and of others), and tenderness. Sometimes funny (like laugh-out-loud funny) and sometimes scary (the rumblings of the earthquake), always quirky (Frog) and always tender, the play is masterful at engaging the audience and making us believe in every character—from Sala’s ability to overcome her nighttime terrors to Frog’s ability to slay the horrible worm-monster. You root for them all (well, maybe not so much for Takatsuki, but he was just following his heart back in the day).
Sharp’s portrayal of the many emotions consuming Junpei is masterful. From the opening scene of his storytelling to Sala to the end of the performance where his character begins to be stronger in self, and thus in direction, you just love the guy. He’s tender and funny, true blue and humble, genuine in his self-deprecation and honesty, infuriating in his lack of confidence around Sayoko. Bradley is so true to her character Sayoko, that quite often you forget you’re watching a performance, and assume you’re sitting at her kitchen table. She also doubles as a caring and insightful, yet slightly sassy nurse later in the performance. Amazing.
Kwan does a superb job delegating emotions and actions between the two roles of Takatsuki and Katagiri. The two characters in their stories couldn’t be more opposite but he manages to clearly distinguish the characters. Miss Tran, playing Sala, is innocence incarnate. She’s already great at projecting charm and personality. And while Miller’s narration is clear, his Frog is astoundingly entertaining—from his “ribbets” to his digits (covered with rubber gloves) to his ability to either flatten and squeeze through doorways or “pop” with deathly lesions.
Cory P. Grossmann plays an elegant and eerie cello throughout the performance, and his music is a perfect match for the simple yet striking play. The play is only onstage for one more weekend, and with a 70-seat theater that only leaves 210 more chances to see it. It’s strongly recommended, even if it means stepping out of the Minneapolis sunshine for a couple of hours. You’ll be transported to a world that’s just as rewarding.