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In 'quake,' dreams of a fragile place called city

The characters, who share traumas in these tales by Murakami, can't help but convey overtones of 9/11.

August 03, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- "After the quake," an exquisite dramatization of two short stories by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, may not register particularly high on the theatrical Richter scale, but the emotional aftershocks it carries are profound and lingering. Delicately adapted and directed by Frank Galati, this production, which originated at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and is now at the La Jolla Playhouse, brings to life a fictional world in which reality blurs with dreams, and the meaning of momentous public events plays out privately, in hidden chambers of characters' innermost selves.

The tales take place after the devastating earthquake that struck Kobe, Japan, in 1995 and just a couple of months before the poison-gas attacks in the Tokyo subway would further jolt an already rattled populace. Published here in 2002 as a collection, these fictional snapshots of characters grappling with a shared trauma can't help resonating with Sept. 11 and the fear that metastasized in America as a result.

In the background of these stories is an awareness of the fragility of "the intense collectivity known as 'city.' " It's an unusually topical theme for such a quirky fantasist, but don't expect him to stray too far from his customary approach.

A modern-day urban surrealist, Murakami can't resist parting the curtain between conscious and unconscious realms. In his work, everyday existence is allowed to give way to extraordinary, sometimes even supernatural developments -- especially when feelings have been bottled up for too long and the shadow of bad faith darkly hangs over the compromises made in adulthood.

Of course, disaster of any kind, natural or otherwise, provokes an agitated reckoning with the choices one has made. Death looms, and our personal accounting inevitably finds us coming up short.

Such is the case for the protagonists of "super-frog saves tokyo" and the less anthropomorphically Kafkaesque "honey pie." Both men are stewing in their own dissatisfactions, and both tacitly hold themselves to blame.

Katagiri (Andrew Pang), the loan collector in "super-frog," has resigned himself to complete anonymity. Stuck in a job that no one else at his firm wants, he's not even appreciated by his own family, despite the fact he supported both his siblings through school. Unmarried, unloved and virtually unwatched, he can hardly understand why a gentlemanly but nonetheless intimidating frog (Keong Sim) has turned up at his home to enlist him in the battle against Worm, a creature planning to level Tokyo with another seismic whack.

In "honey pie," Junpei (Hanson Tse), an endearingly modest writer who has been helplessly -- and all too passively -- in love with the same woman since college, spends a good deal of his time wondering how Sayoko (Aiko Nakasone) wound up marrying his best friend, Takatsuki (Pang), and not him. As Junpei invents bedtime stories for Takatsuki and Sayoko's little girl, Sala (an adorable Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker), he muses about what might have been -- never suspecting that he'll one day get the chance to rewrite his own story when his friends suddenly get divorced.

The bridge Galati erects to connect these two tales is unobtrusively effective: Junpei invents super-frog in response to the nightmares Sala has about Earthquake Man, a menacing figure who's apparently determined to put her entire family inside a box. "Super-frog" may not be one of Murakami's greatest stories, but it daringly theatricalizes the prevailing psychology of "honey pie," airlifting it from an earthly realism to a cumulous region of comic fantasy.

Murakami is equally adept at these two stylistic modes, ballasting the surreal with the real, and vice versa. More impressive still, he infuses them with a depth of emotion that is always somewhat mysterious and, for that very reason, resonantly true.

Galati's staging conveys not just the stories but the introspective mood that underlies them. Set in a darkened and sparely modern space, the tales overlap with a fluidity that sustains the narrative flow. Structurally, this is without question one of the more elegant dramatizations of literary material to come around in a while -- shimmering proof that adaptation doesn't have to mean diminution.

The lyrical qualities of the work are heightened by the seamless blend of Eastern and Western music, performed live by Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto. But it's the company of Steppenwolf actors, reprising and no doubt refining their roles, that gives "after the quake" its emotional rumble.

Tse is especially affecting as the unassuming Junpei, a surrogate for Murakami who, in a moment of authorial irony, observes that the short story form he has devoted himself to is as outdated as a slide rule. With interior grace, the actor captures the position of a writer who looks at the world longingly yet by force of habit keeps himself in watchful reserve.

But the ensemble, under Galati's discreetly expert direction, is uniformly good. From Sim, who ribbits in "super-frog" as well as he narrates in "honey pie," to Nakasone, who possesses the perfect aura of amiable reticence for Sayoko, the performers embody the textures and nuances that give Murakami's fiction its curiously haunting tone.


'after the quake'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 26

Price: $28 to $60

Contact: (858) 550-1010

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

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