Quakes, tsunamis and catastrophic hurricanes have been arriving with distressing regularity of late. High time, then, for theater that probes the link between shakeups in one's emotional life and the various rumblings of the ground beneath our feet.

Quakes, tsunamis and catastrophic hurricanes have been arriving with distressing regularity of late, prompting the nagging fear that maybe we’re causing some sudden shift of global tectonic plates. High time, then, for theater that probes the link between shakeups in one’s emotional life and the various rumblings of the ground beneath our feet. But while Frank Galati’s adaptation of tales by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is both resonant and evocative of the fissions of our age, this haunting but only partially realized chamber piece (headed next to the Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn.) will need expansion, amplification and greater heft if it is to satisfy the cosmic metaphors it puts into play.

Galati is an old master at taking short stories and containing them theatrically within interlocking Chinese boxes. In this case, the tales are Japanese and the quake in question is the one that wracked Kobe in 1995. After that event, author Murakami left his expatriate life and returned home to try and make sense of the widespread sorrow in Japan. The result was six stories set in the late 1990s that tell of the aftermath of the quake — an era bookended on the other side by the Japanese subway attacks (another disaster, but this one the work of terrorists).

Galati takes up two of those stories, “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” and “Honey Pie.” He probably needed to include at least a couple more.

One is the story of a “Jules and Jim”-like love triangle wherein a young novelist (Hanson Tse) and the fellow student (Aiko Nakasone) he loves never quite get it on at college. In the absence of a declaration of his feelings, the young woman marries a journalist (Andrew Pang) and has his child (Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker). But she remains friends with her first love through later life, dancing around their ongoing mutual affection and the painful reality that any open move could cause a quake.

The second tale is the story of a bank loan officer who discovers a frog in his room. The creature (played, in green gloves and glasses, by Keong Sim) has a plan for going underground, defeating a malevolent worm and saving the town from an impending quake.

Galati sticks the second story within the first, as the tale the novelist tells the child of the woman he loves. The show thus can flit back and forth from one short story to another, developing and wrapping them up together. Thematically, this means a fantasy about preventing a natural earthquake is ironically contained within a story about two true lovers who would require an earthquake to put their lives back into their natural orbit.

It’s a clever idea and it works beautifully, but only as far as it goes.

Galati’s production deftly captures the sparseness and cleanliness of Murakami’s writing and its Japanese landscape. It’s an intensely elliptical atmosphere. But it’s also an unnecessarily distant and humorless world, wherein the internalizing and immensely capable actor Tse plays the novelist rather like something out of Camus. Sure, he’s an emotionally repressed fellow, but he hides too much here. Much the same could be said of his girlfriend. In the role of the cruder husband, Pang goes more toward the other extreme. The perfs are consistently interesting, but they never entirely gel in a consistent style.

Neither, frankly, does the story of the frog superhero, even though it starts out with compelling clarity. As the two tales wind on, they seem to fall further away from each other, rather than the necessary coming together. At the conclusion of the play, we feel little has been resolved.

Galati has managed to evoke a style that’s true to this author and credible as a theater rooted in a contemporary Japanese aesthetic. It’s already a classy bit of visual theater (the live music on cello and koto provides a gorgeous underscore), but it ultimately runs away from its audience too fast and too far.

An unreasonable expectation of an elliptical work? Not at all. Once one brings up the notion of earthquakes of the heart and ground, it’s no longer entirely possible to dance around the edges, sparse and elegant as they may be.

After the Quake

Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater, Chicago; 250 seats; $60 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater presentation of a play in one act by Frank Galati, adapted from stories by Haruki Murakami. Directed by Galati.

Creative

Sets, James Schuette; lighting, James Ingalls; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; sound, Andre Pluess, Ben Sussman; production stage manager, Malcolm Ewen. Opened Oct. 30, 2005. Reviewed Oct. 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Narrator, Frog - Keong Sim Junpei - Hanson Tse Sayoko - Aiko Nakasone Takatsuki - Andrew Pang Sala - Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker
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