Beneath a massive red crossbeam spanning two posts like an arch, a young Asian man is telling a bright little girl a story—it could be a bedtime story—about “the all-time number one honeybear” in the mountains of Japan, as low music from a koto player and a cellist flows around and through their words.
The little girl interrupts, inquisitively: So this bear’s different from the others?—and her storyteller agrees, adding that new wrinkle to the tale he seems to be shaping on the spot.
But after the little girl’s gone to bed, her mother, old classmate of the storyteller, talks about her bad dreams since the earthquake, how she’s afraid of “The Earth-quake Man,” who wants to stuff her and everybody else in town into a box.
The storyteller, who answers a question about his work with, “Like always, I write ’em, they print ’em, and nobody reads ’em—the short story’s on its way out, like the slide rule,” on finding himself alone, everybody asleep, immediately begins a tall tale about a frog, who quotes Hemingway and Conrad, enlisting a nondescript Shin-juku banker to help him fight a giant, angry worm in his lair beneath Tokyo, in a last-ditch attempt to save the metropolis from a fatal temblor.
So the origami-like folds-within-folds of storytelling expand outward, accordion-like, plot flopping over and enveloping previous plots, as Frank Galati’s adaptation of raconteurish Japanese author Haruki Muri-kami’s whimsical yet pointed After the Quake spins out on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep.
As the bedtime tale of the honeybear begets a planned trip to the zoo to see a real bear, then jumps the tracks and merges, somehow, with the ongoing and cartoonish “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” improvisation, the third dimension is filled in with intermittent flashbacks from the storyteller’s autobiography. Appropriately, for a third line intersecting the other two, is the familiar tale of two dissimilar school chums in love with the same girl, whom the brasher one marries while the three remain fast friends.
All three tales alternate, like syncopations in the background string duet, as the motifs from each become familiar in the others, accents shifting from fantasy to memory to the equally fictive story of the present.
The adaptor, long a Steppenwolf Theatre Company associate (perhaps best known as co-author with Laurence Kasdan of the screenplay for The Accidental Tourist), directs the sharp, skillful cast with a light touch, rendering the spot-on timing necessary to keep the interlocking Chinese box puzzle of the plot moving never facile nor cloying, the changes between tales adroit, the switches of character fluid and unobtrusive. The word-for-word style self-narration of characters from the expository prose (like read-aloud stage directions) of the book is simple but dramatically viable as they act out, yet talk their way through, illusion and reality.
Hanson Tse as Junpei the storyteller and Jennifer Shin as Sayoko and a nurse both do a fine, sensitive job portraying their characters, as does Gemma Madison Logan V. Phan, alternating with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji, as little Sala. Keong Sim as the bookending Narrator of the whole compound tale, as well as (just plain) Frog, and Paul H. Juhn as the brash jock-turned-cynical-city-desk-reporter as well as the colorless banker prove remarkable in both quick-change artistry and comic timing.
Murakami’s story, taken from two episodes in his novel of the same name, comes off a little bit like a simpler version of Flannery O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds, a pioneer of self-cannibalizing tales about voracious narratives and their unassuming, escapist storytellers.
Murakami, son of a pair of Japanese literature teachers, who describes refined Japanese prose as “a kind of bonsai,” was heavily influenced by the shiny surface of postwar American popular culture and its loner individualism. Galati and other non-Japanese adherents to his fiction seem to regard him a little bit like a postmodern J. D. Salinger, a Japanese group-conscious, overly socialized Everyman embroiled with his subconscious in translation to the literalistic, storytelling stage.
James Schuette’s set adds to the sense of action and overarching reverie, just as the compositions of Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman underpin both moods and modes, as played by cellist Jason McDermott and Jeff Wichman on koto—though there’s maybe a little too much of “Norwegian Wood” as leitmotif, the title of one of Murakami’s books, as well as The Beatles’ knowing number.
AFTER THE QUAKE
Through Nov. 25 at the Berkeley Rep,
2025 Addison St. 647-2900.