Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Japanese Play

September 03, 2010

Cristofer Jean (left) and Kevin Kenerly (right) in Throne of Blood Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

I arrived to beautiful weather in Ashland, Oregon, this weekend for my visit to this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival has been taking a number of exciting new directions under the tenure of artistic director Bill Rauch, and this year’s line-up provides several productions that have grown out of artistic collaborations Rauch has fostered both here and during his long history working in American theaters across the country. Perhaps one of the most promising new projects this year is an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood for the stage by director Ping Chong. It’s a natural fit for Ashland and the festival considering that Kurosawa’s film is an adaptation of Macbeth to begin with. The show is a co-production with the Brooklyn Academy of Music where it will appear in November.

Ako as Lady Asaji in Throne of Blood Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2010

Chong has an ambitious visual sense that makes for one of the most striking productions I’ve seen here in years, which is saying something considering the high quality of OSF productions on the whole. Throne of Blood directly references the visual style of the Kurosawa's film using elements that refer to the cinema. The set incorporates a stage-spanning rectangular screen used for video throughout, often providing hints of scenery or supertitles in the few instances where Japanese is spoken by the characters on stage. Beyond this, Chong, like Kurosawa before him, peppers Throne of Blood with references to Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater traditions. There are at least three visible black-clad and masked stage hands, kuroko, and the actors are moved about at times on platforms, Hiki Dōgu, while striking characteristic poses, mie. These touches and other stylized movements, give the very familiar Macbeth storyline a rather alien air. This is particularly true for the role of Lady Asaji, the Lady Macbeth character played by Ako, who often remains completely still or relies on smooth patterns of Japanese stage movement while her husband, Washizu played by Kevin Kenerly, flits and flails about her in his own struggle for resolve.

But for all of the visually interesting images, Throne of Blood periodically stumbles into self-parody like some Saturday Night Live skit of a samurai B-movie. Shakespeare’s witches are replaced by a “wood spirit”, portrayed by the tall and lanky Cristofer Jean, in white make up and robe with a large white fright wig. He appears in a cloud of smoke seated at a spinning wheel and speaks in a voice heavily augmented with audio special effects. But the wild swings in his characters’ tone from a high-pitched winsome ghost sound to a menacing angry growl were often as likely to produce laughs as fear in the audience undercutting the creepy feel of the scene. Perhaps the bigger problem than any specific effect or characterization, though, in Throne of Blood is the lack of poetry. Blessed neither with Shakespeare’s lines nor the cadence of Japanese, the prosaic dialog is bland at best and unintentionally comical at worst. And while it never reaches “All Your Base” proportions, the text does feel at times like a second class translation from another tongue. But on balance, the elements that work in this stage version of Throne of Blood more often than not outweigh its weaknesses to create a show that is worth seeing in a Shakespeare Festival that is reaching out in several new directions.

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