• Photo: Kevin Berne

The Great Wave

Berkeley Rep

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley, California

Written by Francis Turnly

Directed by Mark Wing-Davey

Starring Jo Mei, Sharon Omi, Yurié Collins, Julian Cihi

Through October 27,


“The Great Wave” should have been a great play. It seemingly has all the right ingredients: a spine-tingling story based on real geopolitical events involving a captured young Japanese woman imprisoned by the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea, while her valiant mother and sister back home battle their government for support, never giving up hope of being reunited with her.

Yet, the elements in this Americana premiere failed to coalesce and instead produced a rather lengthy, documentary-style affair that lacked spine-chilling spy thrills on the one hand, and pathos and poignancy on the other. The production does have many vivid moments of fine acting and human warmth; unfortunately, the overall effect veers toward the stilted and inexpressive.

From 1979 to 2003, North Korea conducted a farfetched, though absolutely factual, terrorist campaign in which they secretly abducted some ordinary Japanese citizens and held them for up to 25 years, during which time they were forced to teach North Korean spies how to pass for Japanese. “The Great Wave” is the fictionalized tale of one such kidnap victim, Hanako (excellent Jo Mei), who as a petulant teenager is captured on the beach during a fierce storm (with outstandingly convincing rogue wave effects by Video Designer Tara Knight).

At first, her mother Etsuko (well-acted by Sharon Omi) and sister, Reiko (outstanding Yurié Collins) fear that she had been washed out to sea. But Reiko saw three strange-looking men on the shore that night. A young male friend and neighbor, for whom the sisters were competing, Tetsuo (effective Julian Cihi), blames himself since he had left Hanako alone on the beach. Over years, he painstakingly detects the fantastic facts that Hanako was not the only one who went missing from the Japanese coastline. The family’s battle to find their missing relative and to force the reluctant, risk-averse Japanese government to confront this heinous international kidnapping outbreak forms half of the action. The other half is Hanako’s sad life as a captive in North Korea. And her struggle is heartbreaking.

As written by Japanese/Northern Irish author Francis Turnly, the scenes continuously ping-pong between North Korea and Japan, as large screen titles signify the years going by. The multiple scene shifts get in the way of experiencing any of the characters profoundly or providing novel political insights. Instead, the play functions more like a chronological record of the events — often resembling a documentary more than a drama.

Mark Wing-Davey has directed six diverse plays at Berkeley Rep, (including“The Life of Galileo,” “36 Views,” and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre”). In this production, the stage muffled the actors’ voices and the two hour and forty-five-minute performance (with one intermission) moved very slowly, so that the climax, when it finally arrived, seemed almost an afterthought.

“The Great Wave” is based on riveting political events with explosions of high drama and human emotion, enveloped by dreariness. 

This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

By Emily S. Mendel

© Emily S. Mendel 2019   All Rights Reserved


San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.