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.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Haruki Murakami. Adapted by Frank Galati. Directed by Randy Baker. Costumes, Frank Labovitz; scenic design, Debra Kim Sevigny. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Rorschachtheatre.com