Sunday, July 26, 2009

Company One: After the Quake

Company One, a theatre member of the Boston Center for the Arts, has established themselves as the theatre company that does not shy away from challenging or difficult material. This spring's "The Pain and the Itch" was one of their most gut-wrenching and rewarding plays of the spring season while last summer's "Assassins" proved popularly successful, though reviews were tepid. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that I attended the latest venture from this little theatre than can: Frank Galati's dramatization, "After the Quake." While I am most impressed with the selection of material, this latest offering is mostly an unbalanced exploration of theatre style, storytelling, and uneven acting.

For those of you who don't know, Frank Galati is the modern-day grandfather of the narrative theatre movement, a style popularized and proselytized at Northwestern where Galati and patron-saint Mary Zimmerman both teach. As the name implies, this genre is based in the act of bringing literature to the stage as in Galati's TONY-winning adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath" and Zimmerman's TONY-winning "Metamorphosis." In both of these examples, traditional theatre techniques and narrative forms are mixed with storytelling, music, and choreography conjuring the origins of Greek Theatre.

For this work, Galati tackles Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's short stories compiled in his collection by the same title. Both of the stories dramatized in "After the Quake" were written in response to the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995 which left thousands dead, tens of thousands injured, and destruction throughout the city and surrounding towns. Although central to the inspiration, the earthquake actually plays a minor role to the stories evoked cleverly and with great empathy. The frame story for the plot is Sayoko's young daughter Sala, has been having nightmares ever since the earthquake and calls on her college friend, Junpei, to tell her daughter stories to assuage her fears. Junpei, a struggling writer, creates fantastical stories about personified animals that distract and entertain young Sala. Taking inspiration from these fables, Junpei begins work on a story about a life-size frog who warns the unassuming businessman Katagiri about an impending earthquake that will destroy the city. This sci-fi exploration is interrupted with a very realistic memory story about how Sayoko, Junpei, and Sala's father Takasuki met in college and the aftermath of a love triangle gone awry. The intermingling of stories and themes is deftly woven by Galati, which portends the aftermath of all the quakes in our lives whether seismic or personal.

Director Shawn LaCount definitely did his research on Asian theatre traditions in order to stage this work. The stage itself is painted to suggest the traditional theatres of Japanese Kabuki and the performance is underscored by live musicians. Stylistically, the scenes culled from "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" are directed a la Kung Fu cinema while the rest of the narration aspires to more traditional storytelling cadences. The set is masterfully and creatively evoked by designer Sean Cote whose work not only tackles the difficulties of the space, but sets the standard for nonrealism is stage design for the company. Unfortunately, what doesn't deliver is the company of enthusiastic, but mostly amateurish actors. Giselle Ty's Sayoko aspires to the most naturalistic performance and shows honest acting prowess even when directorial interpretation forces her into stylization. Likewise, the debut of child actor Sydney K. Penny as young Sala is quite possibly the most consistent performance. In defense of the actors, it is a challenging piece as it jumps between past and present, fantasy and reality. I applaud Company One for committing to cast the show with an entirely Asian American ensemble; however, I couldn't help but wonder how this effected the choice of talent.

Although the play is clearly set in Japan following the Kobe earthquake, the themes cannot help but invoke a pantheon for 9/11 America. Even Galati himself draws this parallel with the original inspiration for the work. What is most inspiring about the play is its deference to the concept of hope, which is certainly this decade's rallying cry. I've even heard our current epoch referred to as the post-hope generation. Whatever the lingo, "After the Quake" is a meditation on making sense out of catastrophe, finding hope in each other, and a reminder that a little magic, such as a six-foot frog, has the power to bring out the best in all of us.

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