The Frog at War 

The Berkeley rep stages a stunning after the war

Everyone who lived here in 1989 has a story about the earthquake, so it's hard to imagine the impact of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, with a death toll estimated at 6,400 compared to the Loma Prieta's 62. The incidents haunt and tie together all the stories in Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's 2000 book after the quake, published in English in 2002.

Two years ago, Frank Galati, winner of two Tony Awards for adapting and directing The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway, debuted his stage adaptation of two short stories from after the quake at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Now, after a stop this summer at La Jolla Playhouse, the co-presenter of this performance, the Steppenwolf production has begun a much anticipated run in Berkeley (where many a social gathering in the last decade has segued into gushing about Murakami's novel The Wind-Up Book Chronicle).

In the stage version written and directed by Galati, the more fantastical of the two stories, "Superfrog Saves Tokyo," becomes a tale told by Junpei, a character in "Honey Pie" who's conveniently a short-story writer. The main narrative centers on Junpei's long friendship with Sayoko, his college crush, and Takatsuki, the mutual friend she married. In the present, Junpei makes up stories about misfit bears for Sayoko's daughter Sala — who can't sleep because she's haunted by nightmares of the Earthquake Man. He also launches into reminiscences about when the three first met back in school, alternating with the frog story that Junpei tells to no one in particular, as if he's simply writing his next short story in his head.

Hanson Tse is terrific as Junpei, especially in the way he transforms from his older, more assured storyteller persona to his introverted, angst-ridden teenage self. Alternating in the child's role with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji, Madison Logan V. Phan keeps Junpei on his toes with discerning questions that wind up shaping the direction of his bear stories. Paul H. Juhn is a breath of fresh air as the bluff, friendly jock Takatsuki, whose default greeting is, "Hey, let's get something to eat!" Jennifer Shin strikes the one false note as Sayoko, livening up periodically as her perky teenage self but falling into a monotone whenever she has to carry a serious moment.

Sayoko occasions one of the most striking moments in Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's richly atmospheric score on koto (Jeff Wichmann) and cello (Jason McDermott). Whenever Sayoko enters as a college student, she's accompanied with bits of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," a reference to Murakami's novel of the same name that covers similarly nostalgic ground of college romance.

Keong Sim plays a narrator who looks on kindly and interacts in a limited way with Junpei, who also serves as a part-time narrator. Sayoko and Takatsuki also narrate descriptions of themselves (albeit from Junpei's perspective), all of which leads one to wonder if the narrator will turn out to be a character in the story as well, but that doesn't happen.

Sim does, however, play the titular Frog in "Superfrog Saves Tokyo," in which a junior bank executive arrives home to find a giant frog in his apartment who enlists his aid in defeating an immense underground worm.

Nearly everything Frog says is hilarious, in part because he's so very un-frog-like in the things he says and the way he says them. He quotes Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Hemingway, and Tolstoy, and carries himself with a suave, unflappable air of utter confidence. Wearing a business suit, his only froglike accoutrements are green glasses and gloves with which he gestures majestically.

But half of what makes it funny is that Juhn makes a perfect straight man as Katagiri, from his gaping look of slack-jawed bafflement to the way he answers Frog's outlandish exposition with a dubious but helpless "Okay." It's particularly impressive to watch Juhn transform from brawny Takatsuki to meek Katagiri, who makes Clark Kent look like, well, Superman. As soon as he puts on glasses to change characters, his whole body caves in.

The contrast between Frog and the narrator, or even between the older and younger Junpei, are also striking. Tse and Shin appear briefly in small roles in the Frog story as well, but these characters are more ephemeral.

While the interweaving of the two stories works beautifully, the seams between them are still visible. The whole Earthquake Man theme is quickly shrugged aside in favor of the Frog story, which steals the show but doesn't feed into or affect the main narrative at all, unlike the stories about misfit bears that Junpei tells Sala. Ultimately, however, when those seams show they simply serve as a reminder of the work Galati did to bring Murakami's stories together into a coherent ninety minutes of theater and make one appreciate anew what a stunning piece of work it is.

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