Periscope Depth

with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage

I talk a lot about the premium that I pay to live in an artsy city like Boston. This weekend I took advantage, seeing two plays produced in part by friends of mine.

after the quake: Simple and engaging. Two stories from Haruki Murakami’s critically acclaimed collection of the same name have been woven into one stageplay. A love triangle between a bookish novelist, a cocky journalist and the mother of a nightmare-stricken girl unfolds during the 1995 Kobe quake. The story itself doesn’t break any new ground with plotting, but it’s not supposed to – it’s the quiet, face-saving desperation of the three lifelong friends that draws the viewer in.

This quiet romantic drama unfolds in parallel with a story the novelist tells for the little girl, about a six-foot tall frog who calls on the aid of a nebbish loan collections officer to save Tokyo from the sinister Worm. This super frog (“Please! Call me Frog”) speaks in the punctuated staccato of a dubbed Gojira movie, sprinkles his exhortations with Dostoyevsky quotes, and springs about in a constant state of martial readiness. He’s a quixotic hero whom you’ll adore after about twenty seconds, and Michael Tow (a successful financial advisor, apparently) plays him with aplomb.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: This is the first time I’ve seen R&G on stage, so I can’t say how this performance differs from any others. I can say that Steve Kleinedler’s instincts in directing improv and sketch troupes for years pay off big, as the pacing and physicality of the show’s two stars keep the comedy hilarious and the tragedy disheartening. I thought at first that I liked Jon Overby’s Rosencrantz more than Stephen Libby’s Guildenstern – Overby’s louder and more energetic – until I realized that that was a deliberate choice. Guildenstern’s the lugubrious one: introspective, philosophical, given to syllogism. Rosencrantz, on the other hand, suggests plenty of action, none of which ever gets taken. Duplicating either character would tire an audience; pairing them against each other highlights Stoppard’s genius and Kleinedler’s insight.

The cast of Hamlet were all rather quiet; I strained to hear them under the vaulted ceilings of the Cambridge Y. But Dennis Hurley’s Player King captures the spotlight every time he enters the stage. His performance astounded me – alternately commanding, wheedling, lecturing and obsequious as the scene demanded. His magnetism seemed the least affected, which was all the more amazing given how quiet he is offstage.

A good production of a play gives life to the story the author meant to tell, as well as telling new and interesting stories of its own. R&G follows two characters who don’t know the story they’re in. Certain people in this story, one of the more famous in the Western canon, have melodramatic character arcs and grand falls from glory. But to two trivial characters, set to a series of tasks they never accomplish, this story feels like an arbitrary delaying exercise until death. Are they characters? Are they actors? Are they people? Is the difference worth talking about?