Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lost in translation

Superfrog (Michael Tow) prepares to save Tokyo in After the Quake.

I was late to Company One's After the Quake, which is probably just as well, as I was surprised at how big a misfire it proved to be. It's actually rare that I come across a production in which the creative team has completely missed the point of their chosen text (probably the last time was the ART's Sexual Perversity in Chicago), but that's what seems to have transpired here. The show is certainly well-intentioned, and nothing in it offends, indeed many things about it - the music, the set design - are intricate and beautiful. They're just beside the point.

And this seems strange, given that the style of of play's "author," pomo-lit pop star Haruki Murakami, is such a known quantity. (The drama consists of two of his short stories, "Superfrog Saves Tokyo" and "Honey Pie," entwined and adapted by Steppenwolf's Frank Galati.) Murakami is famous for his interpolation of fantastic, manga- and anime-like elements into delicately rendered, morally serious realist frames. He began writing well before the Internet came to prominence, but his themes generally align with what a friend of mine calls "interfiction" - stories which reflect the cultural pressure of that unseen, virtual universe in our lives. In "interfiction," parallel worlds intertwine, and often exchange affinities, influences, and something like emotional 'data,' but never quite penetrate one another; evocative 'interstices' always remain. Indeed, that lack of genuine contact is a fetish of interfiction, and has become a sentimental trope throughout the current culture (think of the exchange we can't quite hear in Sofia Coppola's Murakami-esque Lost in Translation, for instance, or young people's intense squeamishness over social 'awkwardness').

Thus the inspiring events of After the Quake - the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the later sarin attacks in Tokyo - are never mentioned; they exist in some parallel world of trauma that it would be dangerous to re-visit. Instead, Marukami's surrogate, Junpei (Chen Tang) spins fantasies of comfort and triumph - about loveable bears and amphibian superheroes - to distract young Sala (Sydney K. Penny) from her nightmares of death (she keeps dreaming - another parallel world, btw - of a man who wants to force her into a box, at left). These tales, it turns out, cannot cure their listeners - or authors - but can, at least, calm them; the two stories end in mutual sleep, a poignant equilibrium that's typical of Murakami. Adapter Frank Galati's contribution has been to make this "interfiction" a little "meta" - he not only braids the short stories, but sources some 'fictional' characters within Junpei's "life," while others provide the frame story within which Junpei himself exists. Thus the narrative serpent once again devours its own tail, etc., etc. You know the postmodern drill.

An earlier pop amphibian responds to another Japanese trauma.

The implicit challenge of staging this kind of writing is to suggest a devastating dislocation, as well as a playful, therapeutic route to healing through something like simultaneous consciousness. Thus we should sense, even though it is never mentioned, a great tragedy looming in the past, while a nimble form of emotional play moves forward in the present, even as the script's meta-narrative threads slither past each other without ever actually connecting. I'm not saying this would be easy to pull off, but Company One doesn't even seem to attempt it (or even, to be brutally frank, understand that the challenge is there). Instead, everything about After the Quake is unitary; it's got a unit set, and the onstage (actually center-stage) musicians provide a unified set of cutesy musical motifs, and the acting is in a consistently presentational, almost hearty style.

And therefore there's little resonance to the actual drama, and plenty of obvious artistic missteps by director Shawn LaCount and his cast. Little Sala, for instance, is the only character who seems to be dealing with any trauma at all, when of course she is merely a proxy for the adults in the show, who are at least as ravaged. But as Junpei, Chen Tang is almost irritatingly chipper, and emotionally blank; we're stunned to realize, for instance, that he's been longing for Sala's mother, Sayoko (the equally blank Giselle Ty), from afar. And the dove-tailing parallels that Galati has built into his structural frame (Junpei styles his superfrog's sidekick after a happily arrogant friend, for instance, who actually wooed Sayoko, sired Sala, and perhaps was injured in the quake) seem to only register as meta-plot points. Meanwhile, amid all the light, broad blandness, Michael Tow's frisky Superfrog has struck many reviewers as "over the top" (one even compared him to William Shatner!); but I felt that if anything, Tow should be even more goofily surreal; and he at least understood how to underplay Superfrog's sudden morphing into Murakami himself, in his odd asides about Nietzche and Conrad. There are a few more bright spots in the acting, here and there: Martin Lee was repetitive as Superfrog's sidekick, but channeled an appealing chutzpah as Junpei's college chum, and even Ty had some fun in a broad comic cameo. But these weren't enough to triumph over the strange hollowness at the production's core. Even the beautiful set, by Sean Cote, felt oddly wrong, as it evoked traditional Japanese forms rather than the neon-lit pop labyrinth that is modern Tokyo.

Well, perhaps After the Quake was simply a necessary first step in "changing the face of Boston theatre," as Company One's slogan would have it; the production proves that Asian actors exist, and that there are "Asian plays" worth doing. Let's just hope that next time, this adventurous troupe actually does the play in question.

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