After the Quake

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Editorial Review

Connections shaky in ‘After the Quake’

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

High on the list of lines you usually don't want to hear characters in a play saying to each other: "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Words to that effect are uttered a couple of times in "After the Quake," a woefully fragile adaptation of Haruki Murakami tales at Rorschach Theatre. The drama, based on stories inspired by the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, is about storytelling and dreams. The line between what's real and what's imagined gets blurred, and the plot gets lost in the soup.

Randy Baker's loving, intimate production begins promisingly in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, where the intrepid Rorschach troupe is in residence. A girl wakes up from a nightmare and is soothed by improvised bedtime tales. The yarn spinner, a gentle man named Junpei, is a family friend, though we quickly learn about a simmering romantic triangle involving Junpei and the girl's parents. So far, so good.

Two chapters of Murakami's 2002 "After the Quake" story collection have been fused by Frank Galati (of Chicago's famed Steppenwolf ensemble), and the play quickly establishes a melancholy mood - disasters past, doom to come. Murakami treats this whimsically: A six-foot frog hops into the life of a milquetoast bank manager and declares that the two of them must - must! - save Tokyo from an impending earthquake.

It's the kind of quirky fantasy that seems tailor-made for the visual escapism of anime. But onstage, adapter Galati sticks to Murakami's literary methods. The play features a lot of dry narration, with characters sometimes describing what they're doing while they're doing it. This almost seems natural because they're such a wordy bunch: Junpei writes, but his friend and romantic rival, Takatsuki, hates literature and thus becomes a journalist. Even the frog - Dylan Myers, in a trim suit, oversize Elton John goggles and a pair of those newfangled five-toe running shoes - quotes Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad.

Yes, it's that precious.

Baker's production does well to capture the loneliness at the heart of the parallel plots, thanks in part to tender performances by Daniel J. Corey (as Junpei) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (doubling as Junpei's friend and as the bank manager confronted by the frog). Rorschach is exemplary at the edgy-little-theater business; the material is dark and daring, and the acting is generally sure, if too muted at times. Even the shoestring design is smart, driven by Elisheba Ittoop's understated, moody sound and Stephanie P. Freed's warm, shadowy lights.

Sometimes, though, a tally of fine elements doesn't add up. And in "After the Quake," the allure of slender connections in a shifty universe might elude all but the hardiest Murakami buffs.

Backstage: 'After the Quake'

Rorschach Theatre's "After the Quake" got a PR boost from nature when its first day of rehearsals in August coincided with the Washington area's cameo on the Richter scale. The play, opening Monday, is based on a short-story collection of the same name by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who wrote the work after the Kobe, Japan, earthquake in 1995. Co-Artistic Director Randy Baker, a self-proclaimed "massive fan" of Murakami, spoke about the story behind the show and how "After the Quake" is perched in a sweet spot between fact and fantasy.

Plot points: "The writer is coming to heal a girl haunted by images of the earthquake, and he learns to heal himself and deal with his emotions about the girl's mother, who is his unrequited love, while he's working on a fantastical story about the earthquake."

What's it all about? These are "people who live in a country where disaster is part of your DNA. This deals with how one overcomes damages, both natural and personal, through human relationships. The only way we get through terrible times is together, through storytelling. Storytelling has a transformative power."

Damage control: "I'd say the big relevance has to do with how much we're still dealing with these disasters. We're not prepared for Japan; we're not prepared for Haiti. The play is really about how we move on."

On the edge: "A big part of how my wife [set designer Debra Kim Sivigny] and I envisioned the play is that the earthquake isn't in the center. . . . The earthquake is on the periphery, with people at the center. So the show is in the round, with newspaper clippings of 'Have you seen this person?' up on the walls. . . . You can see them out of the corner of your eye. There are mobiles of detritus hanging, and when an actor needs a prop, they reach up and grab it from the mobile."

The "Phantom Tollbooth": "We [at Rorschach] are always interested in the spot where the commonplace meets the magical."

"After the Quake" runs Monday to Nov. 6 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or go to www.rorschach theatre.com.

-- Jessica Goldstein