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BWW Review: THE GREAT WAVE at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

A riveting true-life geopolitical thriller involving abduction, brainwashing and spies.

BWW Review: THE GREAT WAVE at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The Great Wave

By Francis Turnly
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

In a Japanese coastal town in 1979, teenager Hanako is supposedly swept out to sea by a Great Wave and assumed drowned. But her older sister Reiko remembers seeing some strange men on the beach which sets into motion the story of a family's struggle to determine the truth as well as a geopolitical whodunit that resonates today.

The first act dwells on the search for Hanako. With no body and her sister's sketch memory, suspicion falls on their friend Tetsuo (Julian Cihi), who dared the girls to watch the storm on the beach that fateful evening. His life, as well as his family's reputation will be destroyed by the condemnation of mother Etsuko (Sharon Omi) and the community. Both mother and daughter are consumed by guilt, remorse and a resilient hop that Hanako is alive and may return.

BWW Review: THE GREAT WAVE at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
(l to r) Yurié Collins (Reiko), Julian Cihi (Tetsuo), and Jo Mei (Hanako)

In a world totally removed from Japan, we see Hanako (Jo Mei) again, a captive of North Korea, forced to learn Korean and extol the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. She's brainwashed into believing she can go home once she trains her Korean facilitator Jung Sun (Cindy Im) to 'be' Japanese. Jiro (Paul Nakauchi), here handler, will play a huge role in her life from the moment she's kidnapped, molding her new personality and making her a good Korean citizen.

BWW Review: THE GREAT WAVE at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
l to r) Paul Juhn (Official), Cindy Im (Soldier Two), and Jo Mei (Hanako)

When he's told her family is dead and she won't be returning to Japan, Hanako, now XXXX, is forced into an arranged marriage and has a daughter named Hana. Many years pass and life in North Korea is harsh and extremely controlled. Back in Japan, her sister, mother ad friend Tetsuo, now a reporter, do their due diligence n report of other missing people. They approach an official in the Foreign Office with their claim of North Korean abductions, who initially rebuffs their claims but will eventually become a key player in the revelation of the conspiracy, coverup and eventual resolution.

BWW Review: THE GREAT WAVE at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Sharon Omi (Etsuko) is he bereft mother.

There are no happy endings here, just a bittersweet denouement to a sad chapter in Japanese-North Korean history. The same situation can be said about the divided families separated by the DMZ and other hotspots around the globe where politics and ideology divide families. The acting across the board is solid with constrained rage being the overarching theme. The set design by Chica Shimizu utilizing elevating platforms and slide-in rooms is stunning as is the lighting by Lap Chi Chu and video designs of Tara Knight. Due the length of the play which runs in at two hours forty-five, the dramatic tension, suspense and emotional impact are blunted. Even the initial delight of the technical elements wears thin. Condensed and much less Zen would've put this production over the top.

The Great Wave continues through October 27, 2019. Tickets available at or by calling 510-647-2949.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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From This Author Steve Murray