Tuesday, December 04, 2007


(Nerdy note: if I was counting my blog posts using an 8-bit integer, this would be the last post before I rolled over to 0.)

After my recent post, I feel the need to tell people, "Hey, I don't just care about television, movies, and video games! I like culture, too!" Fortunately, I have a good excuse on hand: last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Frank Galati's adaptation of "After the Quake," a Haruki Murakami novel. As you may know, I am a big fan of Murakami, and I was determined to see the play as soon as I heard that it was coming to Berkeley. For a while it seemed like fate was determined to thwart me, as my plans for making the trip were repeatedly postponed. It was worth the wait, though: I got to see it on its closing weekend, along with a couple of friends who appreciated it as well.

As the brother of a theater major, I'm well aware of my limited exposure to the world of drama. For what it's worth, though, I thought the play was amazing. It succeeded on each technical aspect. The acting was wonderful, without any weak spots, but I thought that Paul Juhn, who played Katagiri and Takatsuki, was just phenomenal. The music was another stand-out strength: there are only two instruments, a cello and a koto, but they are both played live, and their effect on the play was incredible... some scenes that would have felt moving anyways became heart-clenching under their inspired music. The music led the action, commenting on it, or accenting certain visual beats. There was a lot that shouldn't have worked, but somehow did, like when they melted into an eerily sparse and beautiful cover of "Norwegian Wood."

Beyond the artists' technical mastery, the play succeeds wonderfully as an artwork. I am not familiar with Frank Galati's other work, but I'm so impressed by what he's done here that I want to seek it out. He has taken two short stories from "After the Quake" and intertwined them. I had initially assumed that he would do this in a Hollywood type of way, by combining characters and events, but he didn't go down that road. Instead, he keeps the stories' plots separate while uniting their storyTELLING. The play lives in a fluid space where the narrators of one story become characters in the next, with indirect comments and themes shared between the two but never quite lining up. It is a fascinating structure, at once complex and beautiful, engaging without being deliberately obtuse. The transitions themselves seem to melt as the play goes on. Early in the play, characters walk offstage to change costumes, but as the stories reach towards their climax, they begin to shed identities in full view of the audience. It's a beautiful and moving metaphor.

In combination with all this, the two stories are themselves about stories: Frog, the protagonist of one, is a great lover of literature who uses examples from classics like Anna Karenina to explain his strange life. Junpei, the protagonist of another, is a struggling young author who writes fiction to come to grips with the real world and bring people together. So there are scenes where you have the Frog actor narrating Junpei's narration of a bedtime story to Sala. It is an intricate structure, one that comments on the creative power of fiction, how each of us can be creators of our own worlds. Thinking about this afterwards, it seems like one of those profound truths which is so simple I have not thought of it before. We live our lives as characters in other people's plays, but at the same time, each of us is the author of our own narrative in which we seek to make sense of the world and our place in it, and the roles of everyone we meet, who are in turn writing us as characters... I think that Murakami may have been getting at this idea in "Honey Pie," but Galati has exploded that idea out of the text and made it a part of the performance.

Speaking of which, after watching the play, I'm more motivated than ever to go and read "After the Quake." Murakami wrote this upon his return to Japan following the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Although sometimes described as a novel, it is actually a collection of short stories that, in one way or another, are meditations on the earthquake and, more importantly the reactions and fears it stoked in the Japanese psyche. Although my favorite Murakami pieces to date have been his long-form novels, I love his short fiction as well, and look forward to going through a unified collection such as this. Besides which, the idea of living with the threat of earthquakes has a particular (please pardon the pun) resonance among people in Northern California. There was a point during the play which flashes back to the 1995 earthquake, and as lights flash and characters scream, the audience could FEEL the rumbling and shaking of the earth. This brought back immediate memories of my first experience with an earthquake. At that time, it was a new and strange enough sensation that I did not have time to feel scared. Oddly enough, I felt more frightened sitting in a theater experiencing a simulated quake than I did on the second floor of a building while a real one was going on. I think this is another thing Murakami is getting at: the damage an earthquake (or any disaster - think of the September 11th attacks) deals goes beyond the initial toll in buildings, dollars, and lives. Such disasters can creep into our psyche, making us frightened, and diminishing our hopes and our ambitions. In the play, Sala has a dream where she is put into a box by the Earthquake Man. Murakami wants to show us that box, recognize that we put ourselves inside it, and tell us that we have the freedom to leave.

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