Friday, September 20, 2019

"The Great Wave"

The Great Wave
Francis Turnly

Sharon Omi
Almost every stormy winter, we natives of the San Francisco Bay Area read the tragic news that along the city’s Great Beach or nearby coastal areas someone has been swept to sea by a sudden-appearing “rogue wave,” never to be seen again.  In 1979 off the west coast of Japan, two teenage sisters venture out during a terrific rain and lightning storm to a nearby beach.  A great wave appears – picture the famous nineteenth-century, woodblock print “The Wave” by Hokusai – and one sister disappears.  But in this case, the other stunned, surviving sister claims that she saw through the blinding rain and soaring waves two strange men grabbing her disappearing sister.  Their mother is also sure her daughter is still alive because if she were dead, “I could have felt it.”

As bone-rattling, eye-popping sound (Bray Poor), lighting (Lap Chi Chu), and video (Tara Knight) designed effects of an oceanic storm sweep through the Roda Theatre, Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave begins.  Currently in its gripping American premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Great Wave is full of mystery and suspense, little-known history and real-time relevance, and a family’s undying love and unwavering search for truth.

Police inspector, Takeshi, believes Reiko is still in shock over losing her sister as she keeps insisting that she saw strange men with long hair taking her sister away during that horrific storm.  He is much more certain that the male schoolmate, Tetsuo, who suggested in a lark to the girls that they all go to the beach that night is somehow connected to the girl’s demise.  The missing girl’s mother, Etsuko, also believes Tetsuo is the one who is to blame for Hanako’s disappearance; and even when he is released by the police with no evidence to counter his own story that he never went to the beach, she demands that Reiko stay away from her friend.  

But neither Tetsuo or Hanako’s family is willing to let go of the idea that somewhere that girl is still alive.  Each begins what will be a year-in, year-out pursuit to find her: Etsuko through messages in bottles sent to sea as well as homemade paper lanterns launched at the shore; Reiko through posters by the hundreds printed and posted/re-posted; and Tetsuo through journalistic research to find out about other coastal disappearances of the time.

Jo Mei
What none of them knows – and probably most of us in the audience did not know upon entering the theatre – is that in the ‘70s/80s, agents were in fact abducting people off the coast of Japan in order to take them to North Korea, where they were persuaded to teach future spies to speak and to be Japanese.  Francis Turnly’s play – one based on a true account of such an abduction – takes us next to North Korea where we find the frightened, confused Hanako in a bare, concrete-walled room where the only decoration is a hung photograph of he who is always referred to as “The Great Leader.”  A smiling but stern Official explains to the girl who cries to go home that “we would like you to stay with us awhile” because “our Great Leader requests you perform a duty.”  Further he informs her that she is here because “the sea chose you.”  Her task is to learn Korean with a promise that if she does, she can then go home. 

To go much further in this intriguing story would be to give away too many of the many twists and turns still to come.  This real-life mystery is at times like a wide-screen movie, with epic proportions as directed by Mark Wing-Davey on the Roda’s massive stage of two levels as the action alternates between the two countries over what will be twenty-five years.  The impressive scenic design of Chika Shimizu with an elevator stage element moving up-and-down to change settings and scenes allows parallel, sometimes over-lapping scenes between the two countries and between the ever-present sea and the confinements of North Korean rooms of interrogation and/or instruction.   Contrasting home settings of the two locations move seamlessly in and out while the costumes of Meg Neville bring the harsh contrasts of two cultures, economies, and political systems into our reality. 

As educating, captivating, and eventually genuinely moving as Francis Turnly’s story is, the play’s first half hour or so suffers from dialogue that is often a bit clunky and mindless, with actors delivering those lines too perfunctorily, almost as if casually reading from a script the first time.  As interesting as the set-up and as wowing are the visuals of video and lighting, the play takes quite a while to grab its audience. 

However, about halfway through the first act, things start to click in every respect – script, actors, and direction – and by intermission, there is a buzz in the lobby of “I can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.”  By the second act of this two-hour, thirty-minute show, I for one went from being mildly interested to being totally enthralled and emotionally moved by the back-and-forth and eventually interlocking action of the two settings and stories.

Jo Mei & Paul Juhn
As is typically true at Berkeley Rep, the cast – in this case an all-Asian ensemble – is in the end stellar to a person.  As played so convincingly by Jo Mei, the transformation of the abducted Hanako is at times reminiscent of what many of us once saw after the kidnapping of Patti Hearst, with our more and more wondering if Hanako’s increasing loyalty to “the Great Leader” and to her duties as a North Korean citizen is a matter of survival or of a true conversion.  A mirroring metamorphosis in her Korean instructor, Jung Sun, is uncanny to watch as Cindy Im goes from an emotionless, unformed, barking teacher to Hanoko to become herself a coy, soft-spoken version of a young Japanese woman (having been taught by now-instructor Hanako).

As the ever-vigilant mother, Etsuko, who finds solace conversing with the rocky shore of the sea (more of Chika Shimizu’s stunning set design), Sharon Omi embodies in her performance a mother’s courage to believe and a persistence through the years not to give in to what seems inevitable reality.  Her often quiet or underplayed presence is powerful in the strength she portrays of a mother’s love. 

Similarly, as the sister Reiko who remembers with great sorrow and guilt the final sisters’ quarrel she had with Hanako before they rushed into the storm that night, Yurié Collins gives yet a third performance among this family grouping that is striking and memorable.  The two-plus decades of her search for her sister via papering the country with her home-made posters and those same years of her pushing a government’s reluctant, closed-mouthed foreign officer, Jiro (played by Paul Nikauchi), to reveal what was known about her sister and missing others are portrayed magnificently through the intensity of a sister’s love and the admirable stubbornness of character that Ms. Collins shows in her Reiko.

Julian Cihi, Yurié Collins & Sharon Omi
As the initially accused friend, Tetsuo, Julian Cihi personifies in Tetsuo’s dogged pursuit of truth – and his relentless loyalty to the family of the girl he only knew as a kid – the life-long guilt the boy-now-man bears for instigating the foolish foray into the raging storm and for then abandoning the girls to go to his own safe and dry home.  That singular, year-in/year-out focus – often to the neglect it seems to all other of life’s possibilities – that he, Etsuko, and Reiko give to finding the whereabouts of Hanako is at times incredulous, stretching the story’s believability.  However, the convincing genuineness of these three actors and the compelling, ever-more-intriguing series of events of the playwright’s story in the end convinced even this skeptical reviewer that twenty-five years is not too long for such love and devotion to be sustained.

Providing chilling performances that lay bare the austere nature and the punishing atrocities of the North Korean regimes of those decades are Stephen Hu as Kum-Chol and Grace Chang Ng as Hana.  The natures of their particular roles must remain unsaid in this review in order not to spoil the suspense of the story.

(It must be said that on opening night, there were a couple of bumbling properties and clumsy attempts at recovery that dampened  (pun intended) The Great Wave.  However, my guess is that by the second night, those will be long-corrected.)

Villains and villainous acts – present and past – populate this fact-based tale. Through characters’ own tear-filled accounts, we as audience witness the results of a history that starts with Japan’s imperialistic takeover in 1910 of Korean land, language, and life and later includes hellacious occurrences of WWII when tens of thousands of Korean women were raped by Japanese soldiers.  But we also experience a North-Korean, modern era where a government’s absolute control of its people is demanded in a society where memory of Japan’s past sins is also vivid and revenge still sought. 

Where our sympathies should ultimately lie is difficult always to assess; but in this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave, what we are most sure is the lasting power of a family’s bonds – bonds that refuse to be weakened by years of no communication by those long separated, by two countries in a perpetual state of being mortal enemies, or by a modern-day democratic government that autocratically refuses to admit either its past sins or its present knowledge of secret goings-on.

Rating: 4 E

The Great Wave continues through October 27, 2019 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

No comments:

Post a Comment