Monday, December 7, 2009

After after the quake

Alessandro Juliani (left, as Frog) and Tetsuro Shigematsu (as Junpei) in Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions' mounting of after the quake at Studio 16

It took two tries, and it was very touch and go right up to the end, but Richard and I did finally manage to secure rush tickets for this past Saturday’s penultimate matinee performance of what so far this fall theatre season has proven to be the hottest show in town. I’m referring to Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions’ acclaimed co-production of after the quake, which just finished its sold-out run at Studio 16.

The nail-biting around the tickets was definitely worth it. This production had all the elements of thrilling theatre: a great story simply told; a uniformly superb cast; sharp direction; and an overall design concept (set, sound, and lighting) that integrated seamlessly with the theatricality and thematics of the play.

Adapted by Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Frank Galati, after the quake is based on two stories from acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 2002 collection of the same name. The stories in Murakami’s book are set in the months between the devastating earthquake in Kobe in January 1995 and the deadly subway attacks in Tokyo two months later. Suspended in a surreal dream state, Murakami’s characters struggle to make sense of their lives and forge links with one another amid the general malaise and fear dominating society. Quotidian acts of connection take place against superhuman feats of rescue and sacrifice. To this end, in the play we are introduced to Junpei (Tetsuro Shigematsu), a writer who lives to tell stories to Sala (Leina Dueck), the nightmare-plagued daughter of Sayoko (Manami Hara). Sayako is divorced from Takatsuki (Kevan Ohtsji), Junpei’s best friend from university, and over the course of the play we learn how this triumvirate first met, the bond they forged, and how both men eventually fell in love with Sayako, with Takatsuki beating Junpei to the punch in declaring his intentions. Junpei sublimates his feelings for Sayako through his writing, and the linking story in after the quake is the one Junpei is composing in his head about a mild-mannered and put-upon bank clerk, Katagiri (Ohtsji again), who is visited by a giant frog (the superb Alessandro Juliani) and enlisted in Frog’s plan to rescue Tokyo from an imminent earthquake by doing battle under the Shinjuku subway station with Frog’s mortal enemy, Worm.

I am a big fan of presentational theatre, and one of the things I like most about Galati’s adaptation is the multiple levels of narration that he has retained from Murakami’s writing: the play’s narrator (Juliani again) tells us Junpei’s story, who tells us Katagiri’s story, who is in turn told about his life by Frog, who seems to know everything about him. At various points in all levels of the diegesis, characters address the audience directly. Like little Sala, then, we are enfolded into the magic of the storytelling, and because this is furthermore done within the context of the theatre (where the wires are meant to show), we willingly suspend disbelief and travel along with Katagiri and Frog as they attempt to save the world.

The fact that we have such wonderful actors as our guides helps immensely in facilitating this journey. All the performers—most in multiple roles—are superb, but Juliani really stands out as Frog. With only a pair of amphibian-like gloves, a bowler hat, and a walking stick—and aided at key moments by the voice and visual enhancements of sound and lighting designers Yota Kobayashi and Itai Edral, respectively—Juliani loosens his long limbs, steps liquidly across the stage, and makes us believe he is indeed a frog.

The play’s direction was as it should be—unobtrusive—and this is all the more remarkable given that Pi and Rumble Artistic Directors/Producers Richard Wolfe and Craig Hall were sharing duties on this production. Yvan Morissette’s set—a marvel of sliding doors and screens—was as elegantly simple and structurally complex as the play itself. And what a delight—in a city as densely populated with Asian Canadians as this one—to finally see a critical mass of said citizens represented on our stages.

One final mention must go to box office manager Tara Goertzen-Travis, who for three-weeks, night after night, dealt with rush ticket hopefuls like Richard and me with patience, grace and infinite amounts of good humour. Here’s hoping her job is much easier if and when the production gets a well-deserved remount next year.


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