We have, by virtue of our earthquake last August, an inkling of what the people of Kobe, Japan suffered sixteen years ago. The deep inharmonious rumble – the incomprehensible undulation of the floor – the evacuation – the questions; the weak jokes – and everywhere, the chittering of television news reports. Now add to that chunks of buildings falling out of the sky, clouds of toxic dust, screams of the dying and their sudden silence, and a sense of irreparable loss, and we learn what the Japanese knew then: that an earthquake can make the sturdiest of things – buildings, dams, nuclear power plants – as delicate as spun glass. What can it do to something as fragile as the human psyche?
The answer novelist Haruki Murakami proposes in after the quake, now given strong and precise voice at Rorschach Theatre, is that it disrupts, and sometimes to advantage. Consider Junpei (Daniel J. Corey), a short-story writer with a limited income and a disastrous social life. He is called in, post-earthquake, to comfort Sala (Megan Graves), the young daughter of his dear friends Sayoko (Jennifer Ayn Knight) and Takatsuki (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Sala is having nightmares in which The Earthquake Man comes to her bed and tells her that he is preparing to stuff her into a tiny box. Junpei counters by telling her stories about a talking bear.
But it is Sala’s story that is the more powerful, for it is the story of Junpei’s life. He has made his own tiny box for himself through his own timidity, which prevented him from declaring his true feelings for Sayoko before Takatsuki proposed. So, the ruins of Kobe steaming in the background, he writes another story – one about the great hero Katagiri (Ebrahimzadeh), who teams with Super-Frog (Dylan Myers) to save Tokyo from an imminent earthquake. Katagiri is a loser like Junpei – a lonely, unappreciated loan collector for a gigantic bank. Yet it is he who Frog selects to do battle with the cause of all earthquakes: a worm, the size of a commuter train, who is filled with mindless rage.
It would be too glib to say this is a story of healing. It is something better: a story about ordinary people living their lives, through difficulties. Director Randy Baker’s instincts with Frank Galati’s good adaptation are superb; all of his actors give subtle and precise renderings of their characters, full of great knowingness and understanding. Take Knight, for example, in the role of someone who is both sweet and sensible; her struggle between love and concern for Sala and Junpei are etched on her face, yet at every moment you trust her competence to handle their crises. Or Corey as Junpei: more than the sum of his failings, yet less than a fully functioning adult. Junpei’s dilemma must be deeply moving, despite his quiet ways. Corey makes it so.
Ebrahimzadeh and Graves each have two wildly different roles, and are so good that you can tell who they are from their bearing alone. As Takatsuki, who cheerfully admits to being close to illiterate (he becomes a reporter for a big newspaper), Ebrahimzadeh is bluff, hearty, almost charismatic, and you can understand how his self-confidence won Sayoko even though she was better matched with Junpei. He then transforms to his polar opposite, Katagiri, a man ground down by his own life, and makes us understand something more complicated: the heroism of ordinary men and women.
And Graves does a difficult thing for an adult actor: she plays a four-year-old without a smidgen of coyness or artifice. Salo wears her nightmare-inspired terror like a cloak of ice; watching her warm up to Junpei’s storytelling is like watching a frozen girl come to life before a fire. She also plays a series of adult characters with an aggression and certainty which is nicely set off from her portrayal of Sala.
Amidst all these finely drawn – and acted – humans, we have Myers’ character, a six-foot frog who quotes Nietzsche, Conrad and Hemmingway and who terrorizes mobsters. SuperFrog, who embodies the virtues we identify as masculine and ennobling, is the necessary engine to Marakami’s story; for it is Frog who lets those who most need it – Katagiri, Junpei, and us – know that we have those same virtues within us. Myers nails it. His godlike declamations are amusing but never ridiculous, and – almost against our will – we are drawn into the fate of the frog, as we are into the fate of the human characters.
As with many stage adaptations of literary forms, there is a good deal of narration in after the quake. This sort of thing can be deadly but is not here – certainly because of the crispness of Murakami’s prose but also because of the persuasive way Rorschach delivers it, using multiple narrators who move as they talk and never speak too long. At times, the narrators and characters interact in startling and truly funny ways. Simultaneously, the technicals – particularly Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design – enhance without ever calling attention to themselves. In short, this play has been Rorschachisized, which is to say delivered with such speed, punch and precision that it is impossible not to accept the most outlandish developments.
Rorschach has been off the map for some time as a regular producing company. (Baker talks about Rorschach’s hiatus, and its history, in this interview.) But if after the quake represents the new normal for Rorschach, I gotta tell you, it’s been worth the wait.
after the quake
Adapted by Frank Galati from two short stories by Haruki Murakami
Directed by Randy Baker
Produced by Rorschach Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
1 hour and 30 minutes, without intermission