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Sunday, April 21

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In "honey pie," writer Junpei spends his days with Sayoko, the woman he's loved from afar since college, creating stories for her nightmare-prone four-year-old daughter Sala. In "super-frog saves tokyo," loan officer Katagiri comes home one night to find a six-foot-tall Dostoevsky and Conrad-quoting frog who needs his help fighting an earthquake-causing worm that lives beneath the streets of Tokyo. What do these tales have in common? They are the last two stories in Haruki Murakmi's collection after the quake, and they were the two stories — one the most mundane in the collection, the other the most fantastic — that Steppenwolf ensemble member Frank Galati chose to weave together in his adaptation of that collection, now being presented at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre.

The title of Murakami's collection refers to the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, and the stories in the collection are set between that event and the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway that occurred later that year. True to the title of the work, neither story in the Steppenwolf adaptation deals extensively with the actual time of the quake; the focus is instead on the far-reaching personal shakeups the earthquake causes in the lives of people that weren't directly impacted. Sala begins to have nightmares about an Earthquake Man, which pushes Sayoko to reach out to Junpei; Katagiri, a corporate loan officer who considers himself unremarkable and slightly sub-par in every single way, is nonetheless called upon by Frog as the only person who could possibly help in the fight against Worm.

Galati's interweaving of the two stories — he makes Junpei the author and narrator of "super-frog," while the professorial narrator of "honey pie" transforms into the character Frog with the addition of green sunglasses, socks and gloves and all the adult actors play roles in both stories — emphasizes after the quake's focus on how we use stories to soothe (as Junpei does in his bedtime stories for Sala), entrap (Junpei, over the course of decades, comes up with many explanations for why he cannot declare his love for Sayoko) and confuse (the lonely and selfless Katagiri may be hallucinating Frog in response to the recent Kobe disaster). This confusion of self also shines through in the unusual storytelling technique — in both portions of the staging, the narrator interacts with characters, and characters will break in, narrating their own stories while referring to themselves in the third person. Junpei, a character almost as self-denying as Katagiri, returns to narrating "super-frog" whenever he cannot cope with his unrequited love for Sayoko or the idea that he missed his chance to be with her long ago. Galati's meshing of the two stories not only adds depth to Junpei's suffering by showing us his escape from real life through art, but the intercutting of the stories also makes explicit themes that were underlying in Murakami's original work.

Apart from the integration of these two stories, Steppenwolf's after the quake reverently follows the language of the book, with a few edits and slight detail changes. In this tale of people unable to express their emotions, the narrator has the burden of doing so for the audience; actor Keong Sim brings a light touch to the role that keeps this setup from weighing down the action. Andrew Pang, who has a small role in "honey pie" as Takatsuki, Junpei's close friend from college and Sayoko's husband, brings wit and pathos to the role of Katagiri. Aiko Nakasone's tone was a bit shrill for even a sleep-deprived Sayoko in early scenes, but she redeemed herself during the flashbacks to her college days with Junpei and Takatsuki. Six-year-old Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker, alternating in the role of Sala with Tiffany Fujiwara, was intelligently innocent without being cloying, and did well in a role that called for her to be both a comedic foil and the only character who expresses pure terror.

The minimalist set design by James Schuette works well for the production; the black background and few props leave the focus on the characters, while the curved steel cage-like edifice in the background suggests the trapped nature of the characters. The score, performed live by cellist Jason McDemott and koto player Jeff Wichmann, is gentle and clever; after Junpei mentions the Schubert work Trout it is introduced as part of his theme, and in flashbacks to the college days of Sayoko, Junpei, and Takatsuki, a slight inversion of the melody of Norwegian Wood plays (an allusion to an earlier Murakami work, also featuring a love triangle).

Galati and the other Steppenwolf players who brought this work to the stage clearly revel in these Murakami-specific details; the lobby of the Upstairs Theatre is decorated with several Murakami quotes and pictures of Kobe, and in the playbill Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Levey urges playgoers to read more Murakami after seeing this work. After seeing this elegant and apt work, it seems likely they will.

after the quake
The Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
October 20, 2005 - February 19, 2006

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