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Theater's chairman of the boards

Busy, multitalented Frank Galati ventures out to La Jolla to direct his Haruki Murakami adaptation.

July 28, 2007|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Frank Galati, a tall, stout, snowy-bearded Chicagoan who has a full head of polar-white hair and regularly inspires comparisons to Santa Claus, may have found his way down more theaters' chimneys, in more capacities, than anybody on the American scene over the past 35 years.

When he comes to work at a stage company -- such as La Jolla Playhouse, where he's directing the West Coast premiere of "After the Quake," his adaptation of short stories by Japanese author Haruki Murakami -- maybe they should hang out a stocking.

At 63, he has inhabited so many roles, so many times, in so many genres -- actor, director and adapter; plays, musicals and operas -- while holding down a professorship at Northwestern University for nearly 40 years, that rolling his complete credits, including a turn as Ebenezer Scrooge, would be like listing St. Nick's flight itinerary on Dec. 24.

"He seems to have five productions going at once, major ones, always juggling, always busy, always thrilled to be doing them all," says Gary Sinise, who in 1986 tapped Galati as a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, even though he knew he'd have to share him with the friendly-rival Goodman Theatre, where Galati is an associate artist with a dozen directing credits. "I've asked him several times how he does it, and he says he doesn't know."

At least Galati knows where it all comes from: "Everything I've done started in my classrooms," he says. As a professor of performance studies until retiring last year, he helped students understand novels, stories and poems through the process of adapting them to the stage.

"After the Quake" began a few years ago in an undergraduate seminar; texts Galati had taught for years, including James Joyce's "Dubliners" and stories by Eudora Welty, no longer were engaging his students. So he turned to Murakami's collection of short stories, first published in Japanese in 2000. Most of the protagonists are young adults feeling unmoored after the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that killed more than 5,000 people. Like most Americans since Sept. 11, 2001, the characters have lost a part of their equilibrium, even though they don't live in Kobe.

"There's something going on in Murakami, which I think young people understand -- a willingness to revel in pop cultural modes," including detective stories and B-movie science fiction, Galati says. Two live musicians shadow the actors on cello and koto, and Galati has them quote a Beatles tune, "Norwegian Wood," as an homage to Murakami, who appropriated the song title for one of his novels.

Esteemed by Sinise and others for tempering his hefty intellect with a patient, positive personal approach, Galati has been instrumental both in seeding and spreading Chicago's reputation as a great theater town. As an actor during the 1970s, he was a role model for several of Steppenwolf's young founders, and gave the city's third major company, the Victory Gardens Theater, an early boost by acting in its production of Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker."

Galati won two Tony awards in 1990 -- best play and best director -- for his adaptation and staging of Steppenwolf's landmark production of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," starring Sinise as Tom Joad. More Broadway acclaim followed for his direction of the 1998 musical, "Ragtime." His screenwriting credits include "The Accidental Tourist," for which he was an Oscar nominee, and reconfiguring Arthur Miller's play "The American Clock" for television in 1993 after Miller, dissatisfied with his attempts, had given up trying.

Less glorious for Galatiwas being fired in 2001 as director of "The Seussical," although his replacement, Rob Marshall, couldn't turn the original Broadway production into a success, either (much simplified, the show later did well as a touring attraction starring Cathy Rigby). In April, Galati went down with the ship as the critics cannonaded "The Pirate Queen" -- although most of the fusillade targeted shortcomings in the $16-million show apart from his direction. If he carries any scars, they don't show; the passion that wells up during his smooth, even-tempered discourse is invariably positive, sparked by his love of great writing. When he was unhorsed from "Seussical," Michael Riedel, the acerbic New York Post theater columnist, labeled Galati an "egg-head director."

"I am an egghead," he says, calmly. "I'm not a Broadway baby."

His own babies haven't done badly. Michael Greif, director of "Rent," once said that Galati taught him "the spirit and generosity and poetic soul of the theater." Mary Zimmerman, who won a best-director Tony for her staging of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," also was mentored by Galati at Northwestern.Randall Arney, artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse, considers himself one of Galati's artistic offspring, from Arney's days in the 1980s and early 1990s as an actor, and then artistic director, at Steppenwolf.

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