Three years ago, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's newly arrived Artistic Director Bill Rauch asked the noted artist and director Ping Chong to direct a Shakespeare play.
Three years ago, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's newly arrived Artistic Director Bill Rauch asked the noted artist and director Ping Chong to direct a Shakespeare play. Chong instead proposed adapting Kurosawa's film masterpiece "Throne of Blood," based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth," for the stage, and it opened Saturday in the Bowmer Theatre.
Kurosawa's genius was to place the warrior story of "Macbeth" into the context of Japan's feudal samurai culture and power struggles, paring his storytelling down to the symbolism, simplicity and formality of Noh theater and without using a single line from Shakespeare's play. Ping Chong has taken this deconstruction one step further, turning the stylized film into contemporary, media-savvy theater.
Conceptually, "Throne of Blood" is perfect. Scenery, costumes, sound design, music and the highly original use of video projections distill Kurosawa's classic riff on "Macbeth" into a compelling theatrical experience.
The set on the large Bowmer Theatre stage is spare, dark and formal. Scenic designer Christopher Acebo uses the textures of wood, stone and steel to suggest castles and fortresses, leaving the area mostly bare. Lighting by Darren McCroom only intensifies the stark mood. Composer and sound designer Todd Barton provides the supernatural overlay, using the sound of wind, horse's hooves and whinnies, cawing crows and abrupt atonal bursts. Stefani Mar's costumes recreate the formal, intricate and sculptural forms of medieval Japan.
But it is the video and projection designs of Maya Ciarrocchi that bring all of this together, providing pictorial commentary and plot narrative. Shadowy castles, rain in a forest, cherry blossoms, withering landscapes, fragments of poetry — each in its turn complementing the action onstage.
Perhaps it is the difficulty of transposing Japanese drama into a western theatrical context, but the weakest element in this play is the juxtaposition of elaborate formal speeches by the protagonists with the contemporary, colloquial wordplay of the minor characters. When "Throne of Blood" drops out of the stylized Noh tradition, it stumbles. Although it was part of Kurosawa's vision, the jocular commentary by groups of servants and soldiers on the grandiose power plays of their betters seems here somehow pasted into the pageantry and majesty of the basic story line.
In "Throne of Blood," there are no subtleties of character, no psychological nuances. Kurosawa/Chong's Macbeth, Washizu (Kevin Kenerly), is a straightforward warrior. Sure, he'd like to be Lord of Spider Web Castle, but his sense of duty and loyalty would never permit it. It is his wife, Lady Asaji (Ako), portrayed as totally evil, who manipulates him and browbeats him into the assassination and power grab.
Kenerly is a passionate, if at times bewildered, Washizu. Events truly overtake him. Chong has fashioned Washizu's character more as a rat stumbling fitfully through a maze than a canny political opportunist.
On the other hand, Chong crafted Lady Asaji (the play's Lady Macbeth) with all the studied symbolism of the Noh theater's vocabulary. Each pose, each gesture, each shuffling, slithering step is meant to convey the character's evil essence. Ako, an exquisitely trained and experienced performer, has this down perfectly. Unfortunately, Chong also has given her intricate and formal dialogue that would be difficult for a native English speaker to deliver convincingly, and at times Ako seems like she is enunciating syllables rather than concepts.
Kurosawa morphed "Macbeth's" three witches into one Forest Spirit. Here, Chong has portrayed the spirit as a wicked, gender-shifting apparition (Cristofer Jean), seated in a bamboo hut, spinning the thread of the fabric of life on a wheel while hissing out predictions. Surrounded by fog, glaringly lit, this device is one of the most effective in the production.
The other major characters have been combined and/or pared down. And it is here where the unavoidable western overlay of OSF's resident company jars. Probably the two actors who best overcome the limitations of dialogue and staging are Danforth Comins as Miki (Kurosawa/Ping Chong's Banquo) and Jonathan Haugen as Lord Kuniharu. The rest of the cast, stalwarts such as Richard Howard, Michael Winters, Gregory Linington, James Newcomb, Peter Macon and U. Jonathan Toppo, are more effective when they portray symbolic props than when Chong employs them as comic relief.
"Throne of Blood" overall, however, succeeds magnificently. It is a breathtaking, highly original concept that pays homage to both Shakespeare and Kurosawa and yet makes its own statement on its own terms.
After the festival's 2010 season closes Oct. 31, the production will move to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in New York, which co-commissioned the piece. "Throne of Blood" is a strikingly powerful addition to the festival's 75th year and an equally powerful addition to the theatrical repertoire.