“The Great Wave” at the Berkeley Rep.

“The Great Wave” at the Berkeley Rep.

Carol Benet

Francis Turnley’s “The Great Wave” just opened at the Berkeley Rep under the new Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer.  It is a spectacular play in many ways — acting, setting, projections and videos.  This is its American premiere after being seen at the National Theater in London.  I expect it will go on to other theaters, maybe even to New York as so many of the shows at the  Rep. do.   But it needs a reworking on its focus and length.

“The Great Wave” was inspired by Hokusai’s famous woodblock print that the playwright Turnley used as a metaphor for the turmoil in the lives of his characters.  Turnley is half Japanese and his family lives in his father’s birthplace Northern Ireland.  He has never been to Japan and that might make it possible for him to view a series of incidents that occurred there with more distance. Not that he is not outraged about it, but he is able to have the characters on each side of the argument express their opinions.  

From 1977 to 1983 in a series of abductions 17 Japanese citizens (and dozens more reported) were kidnapped by agents of the North Korean government. Most were taken from the beaches on the West Coast of Japan facing Korea. The North Koreans wanted to capture them so that they could learn about Japanese culture and language in order to send trained spies to Japan.  

“The Wave” is the story of one family and the repercussions of such a kidnapping.  Maybe that is the problem with the  play.  There are just too many stores and too many coincidences between the characters and we have to hear all about the fathers missing form the early childhood of the characters and the missing daughters of too many people. This repetition takes away from the central drama.  The script needs to be tightened.

“The Great Wave”  starts in a simple kitchen of Etsuko (Sharon Omi) when  he two daughters Reiko (Yurié Collins) and Hanako (Jo Mei) return home after school.  The mother berates the youngest daughter Hanako  for failing her foreign language exam.  Not only did she fail but she made an origami out of  her exam paper.  Soon a fellow student Tetsuo (Julian Cihi)  comes over for tutoring from Reiko, the smartest girl in the class.

A storm rages outside with frightening sound effects (Bray Poor) and lightning (Lap Chi Chu) and video design (Tara Knight )making this a very dramatic play just with their special effects.  Meg Neville’s perfect costumes also enhance the story.

Tetsuo encourages the not too bright Hanako to come out with him to observe the storm from the near-by beach.  She is all too willing but soon we find out that she has disappeared.  Tetsuo never went to the beach but Reiko did and she reports that she saw three men take Hanako away.  The inspector (David Shih) doesn’t believe her and the head of the foreign services has has never taken action about the abductions.   The rest the play takes place during the decades later in the search for Hanako. 

 The scene shifts back and forth between Japan and t the stark grey prison-like office where Hanako is forced to learn Korean and then train a spy Jung Sun (Cindy Im) how to be Japanese, speak the language, assume the gestures and all that comes with this cultural conversion.

Hanako is forced into a marriage with Kum-Chol (Stephen Hu), has a child Hana (Grace Chan Ng) and the story goes on with an ending that is perplexing.  Just too many stories thrown at the audience in this almost three-hour play with one intermission.  Well-known director Mark Wing-Davey did an excellent job with with a mammoth story to tell.  Yet the production is truly spectacular, especially the recreation of the North Korean celebration for the leader as well as the storm scenes. 

“The Great Wave” runs through October 27, 2019 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  510 647 2949 or berkeley rep.org

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →