nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
November 9, 2008
Shogun Macbeth transposes Shakespeare's "Scottish play" to samurai-ruled Japan. It's an idea clearly inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, a 1957 film loosely based on Macbeth and also set in medieval Japan.
Playwright John R. Briggs doesn't just copy Kurosawa. He goes several steps further. Briggs stays truer to his source material, and he ups the theatrical ante. The result is a play that's essentially Shakespeare's text with some name changes and a few new characters. Not scintillating on its own, perhaps, but breathtaking when infused with the Japanese theatrical traditions of Noh and Kyogen. And Pan Asian Repertory's current revival of Shogun Macbeth is breathtaking indeed.
Director Ernest Abuba played the title role in the original 1986 production of Shogun Macbeth. Such first-hand experience serves him well in helming a taut production that is both visceral and dreamlike.
From its opening moments, the play casts an unearthly spell. It begins in silence. We glimpse an eerie twilight world. A giant painted Buddha sits in a central temple, serene and remote. Above him, to the left, is a silver moon. To the right is a single tree branch, sinuously afloat in the void.
Suddenly, an elderly Biwa Hoshi, or wandering priest, steps forward. He sets the scene with a poem. Then, a regiment of samurai appears. They lunge in unison, waving their swords in preparation for battle. Their drill is underscored by a strange keening. It's not clear, at first, where the ghastly sound is coming from. Is it the wind?
Then, as the battle preparations grow more frenzied, the wailing's source becomes clear. Three ghostly figures lurk amidst the samurai. This androgynous trio, clothed in white, are the Yoji, or witches. It is their chanting heard on the wind. Now, their chanting grows louder and more distinct, driving the samurai as they pound their swords against the ground. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the scene dissolves. The samurai disappear, and the Yoji are left alone, cackling.
This opening sequence, as choreographed by Sachiyo Ito, Japanese movement director, and Michael G. Chin, fight choreographer, is genuinely frightening. Never before have Shakespeare's "weird sisters" seemed so scary or so, well, weird. Wrapped in spectral white kimonos designed by Carol A. Pelletier, wearing shocking nylon wigs, and covered in white makeup, the witches look like nightmares come to life. They are played with chilling assurance by Shigeko Suga, Claro Austria, and Emi F. Jones. Under Abuba's direction, they dominate the action.
The witches rarely leave the stage. They are nearly always there, hovering in the background. When Macbeth wonders "Is this a dagger I see before me?," it is the witches' hands he sees, clutching at imagined knives. When Fujin (Lady) Macbeth hears an owl screech and the crickets cry, she hears the witches. The assassins Macbeth sends to kill his enemies are none other than the witches, dressed in black. And when Fujin Macbeth famously walks in her sleep, she is escorted by one witch while another, dressed as the doctor, looks on.
The entire cast brings a surprising physicality to their roles. Kaipo Schwab's Macbeth growls like an angry lion, pouncing on anyone who blocks his path. Sacha Iskra transforms Fujin (Lady) Macduff, usually played as a shrinking violet, into an intrepid warrior. Yoko Hyun and Nadia Gan bring puppet-like agility to the brief slapstick roles of Tara Kaja and Jiro Kaja, the wily servants derived from Kyogen tradition.
Roseanne Ma makes a gracefully determined Fujin Macbeth, a woman tragically consumed by her vaunting ambition. Ma and Schwab imbue the Macbeths' partnership with a strong, unexpectedly sexual undercurrent. In one startling moment, just as Fujin Macbeth seems about to seduce her husband into committing murder, she turns and threatens him with a dagger. She loves her husband, but she lusts for power more.
The play's momentum unravels only at the very end. Perhaps the problem lies with the text. Shakespeare ends his play with a triumphant, if hollow, speech from Malcolm, the prince who avenges his father's murder. Briggs, as adaptor, has dropped this difficult soliloquy, but he still can't find a satisfying conclusion. Neither can the director. In this version, the old priest recites a final poem while the witches hover nearby. This final moment should be menacing, threatening—a suggestion that evil survives despite its apparent defeat —but somehow, it feels oddly abrupt and unsatisfying.
No matter. Shogun Macbeth remains, overall, a powerful, thrilling evening of theatre.