21 November 2010

'Throne of Blood' (BAM)

On Saturday evening, 13 November, my friend Diana and I drove over to Brooklyn to see Ping Chong’s staging of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. This is the great filmmaker’s 1957 adaptation of Macbeth, starring Toshiro Mifune in a masterful performance as Taketoki Washizu, the ambitious samurai who is the Macbeth character in the film as well as Chong’s stage adaptation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Kurosawa flick—college, I think—so I don’t remember many of the details, except that it was black and white and a driving, thrilling movie, a classic in its own right, even without Shakespeare’s poetry. Chong’s version, of course, is in English, but he doesn’t return to the Shakespearean text.

Chong’s stage version, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House over an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the cast is drawn from the resident Ashland troupe. (The play ran at OSF’s Angus Bowmer Theatre from 21 July to 31 October this year.) The cast is heterogeneous so, aside from the English dialogue, Chong’s adaptation is already a step or two away from Kurosawa’s vision. Furthermore, the stage obviously can’t accommodate the sweep and visual force of Kurosawa’s film, which was almost wordless.

Chong’s Throne of Blood is a curious, but fascinating, effort. First of all, it’s not Shakespeare and it’s not Kurosawa; Chong, known for his multi-media experimental and avant-garde performances for the past 30 years, isn’t up to that level of artistry in my opinion. The only review I saw before Saturday was Charles Isherwood’s notice in the Times the day before, and he took Chong to task essentially for not doing the movie or the Elizabethan original. But if you look at Chong’s Throne of Blood as an artwork on its own, rather than an attempt to capture the essence of either of its predecessors, that doesn’t matter as much (even though Isherwood’s right in the short run). My companion was unimpressed (to put it mildly): “What do you get out of it?” she asked, after I disagreed with her negative response. A profound theatrical experience, it’s not. This isn’t West Side Story or My Fair Lady set beside Romeo and Juliet or Pygmalion. It’s also not Terrence McNally and Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman compared to the Hector Babenco film. What’s on show here are the staging techniques and the visual effects Chong devises to accomplish what Kurosawa did with his camera. And while even these aren’t fully satisfying in their execution, there are some ideas it’s intriguing to imagine in their ultimate perfection (as they probably can only be achieved on the mind’s stage).

The outlines of Shakespeare’s story are still here, as they were in Kurosawa’s film, transposed from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan. Chong, I think wisely, doesn’t revert to the playwright’s words (except for a few allusions to phrases from several plays), which would only make the play seem pretentious and more derivative than it already is. The language of Chong’s version, based on the subtitles from the film, is neither poetry nor contemporary prose. What it resembles more than anything else is the English translation of classical Japanese theater, principally Kabuki. Since Chong draws considerably on Kabuki and Noh staging traditions for his presentation, this seems appropriate to me, rather than a draw-back. It comes off as being foreign—sort of like a well-dubbed film—but neither lofty nor pretentious. It also let me remember that I was watching a performance, not a slice of reality or fictionalized history like, say, Lion in Winter or Man for All Seasons. Since there are other elements in the production that are presentational, this fits with the style I believe Chong is after.

Isherwood seemed to complain about the film sequences Chong used (designed by Maya Ciarrocchi) and the suggested scenery (by Christopher Acebo) because the one suggests Kurosawa’s cinematography without realizing its “mood and atmosphere,” and the other doesn’t evoke the “sweep and intensity” of Kurosawa’s outdoor imagery. Again, if you don’t insist on comparing this play with the film, that becomes an academic point, I think, and both work for what Chong is doing. The films, which are projected in a strip above the set, are mostly segments of nature scenery—trees in a forest, cherry blossoms, rain. These serve as fragments of projected scenery, to set the image of the terrain and the landscape the way fragmentary sets do for interiors on a stage. Some of the projections are story-related, like the moving of Spider Web Forest (the stand-in for Birnam Wood). One repeated image is the abstract ink drawing, in a style reminiscent of Japanese painting, of bare branches with two leaves that become a pair of staring eyes in a suggested face at the end of the two Forest Spirit scenes. The fact that the projections resemble film means they unavoidably call cinema to mind, and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in particular, but I don’t believe that Chong means for this technique to substitute for Kurosawa’s film work; Chong, after all, is a multi-media artist in his own right. Aside from directing, writing, and choreographing, Chong, whose parents were performers in Chinese opera (a precursor of Kabuki), is also a video installation artist. He got his start as a performer with Meredith Monk, and has worked in such diverse fields as puppetry and oral history.

As for the stage sets, it’s incontrovertible that they can’t compete with the outdoor vistas that made Kurosawa’s film so visually powerful, but since this is a stage play and not a film, no setting could, so why try to compete? The play is episodic, one of its weaknesses, so there are a lot of scene changes. The set fragments, which silently move in electronically on slides or drop down from the flies, accomplish this with alacrity and elegance, giving the impression of a place without depicting it literally. While Kabuki plays use elaborate and often quite realistic sets (Noh uses almost no scenery), this looks more like Japanese interior design—simple, unobtrusive, spare.

The acting, though, is what was interesting to me. Chong obviously wants to incorporate the stylized performance of Noh and Kabuki in his staging of Kurosawa’s semi-realistic screenplay (written by the director with four collaborators). First of all, the whole play is framed as a flashback, with a prologue and an epilogue (in Japanese with English supertitles projected on a photograph of the ruins of Spider Web Castle) that outline the backstory—and, in Brechtian manner, remind us that this is an ancient tale, not a contemporary one. This makes the play an enactment of the history of the place, a very typical Noh structure. (In true Noh, the narrator of the tale, who’s only a voice-over in Throne, transforms into the spirit of the place, often a demon or the ghost of someone connected to the story. This isn’t part of either version of Throne of Blood.) Then the music, composed by Todd Barton (who also did the sound design, which includes such effects as the sounds of weather conditions—very integral to Kurosawa’s film—nature, and horses’ hoofbeats), is recognizably evocative of Kabuki and Noh music (that is, for anyone who has a familiarity with those forms of theater, of course). There are also koken, the black-clad stage assistants of Kabuki and Noh theater, on stage several times.

The Forest Spirit, Throne’s stand-in for the witch (there’s only one instead of three as in Shakespeare), is a Noh demon, all in white with a very long, full white wig. Sitting on a small platform, the spirit turns the wheel of a loom, weaving . . . . what? A spider web? He’s in Spider Web Forest—and a familiar character in Noh and Noh-derived Kabuki is the Demon Spider (who looks a lot like this Forest Spirit). Is this spirit out to ensnare Washizu in his magical web of enticing prophesies? As portrayed by Cristofer Jean, he speaks in a rasping, unreal, stylized (and electronically manipulated) voice that is an approximation of the slow, rhythmic delivery of many Noh characters.

Lady Asaji (the Lady Macbeth character), the most Noh-infused role in the film, wears pasty makeup with stylized facial features so that her face resembles a living Noh mask. The actress (Ako, who is from Japan originally and performed there with an all-female troupe, the Takarazuka Theatre) moves with the deliberate gait of a Noh actor. These and other aspects of the performance demonstrate that Chong wants to evoke traditional Japanese theater in his staging. This is where his experiment fails for me.

Chong can’t improve on Shakespeare and he can’t duplicate Kurosawa’s masterpiece, so what would have worked for me was to see the script interpreted in a hybrid of Western and Japanese staging styles. As I said, I think that’s what Chong is attempting, but while he can get the production artists—the designers and technicians—to approximate Japanese staging techniques, he can’t make Western actors do after a few weeks of rehearsals what Japanese actors do. So, though I can see what Chong probably wants on stage (because, as some of you know, I’ve studied Asian theater, especially Kabuki, for some time), I can also tell that the performers don’t execute it precisely. It’s the difference, I’d say, between learning a language from childhood, with years of study and living among native speakers, and learning some speeches phonetically after a few months of practice and coaching. (Ako, who trained in Kabuki dance, lent her knowledge and expertise in Japanese traditional performance to the task of training the company, along with a movement coach.) I’ll give you one example. There’s limited action in the play; many scenes involve groups of characters sitting, as in the great councils the emperor holds several times. In a Kabuki play, when an actor isn’t the focus of attention on the stage, he’s absolutely still. Having struck the pose he’ll hold during that scene, often kneeling and sitting on his heels, he doesn’t move a muscle until he has lines or business. (This is a very important element of Kabuki performance, and total stillness is a skill all novice Kabuki actors must learn very early.) This stillness makes the slightest movement momentously dramatic and theatrical; but it also makes the merest twitch from an actor not in focus destructively distracting. In Throne, the actors come on stage for those councils, say, and take their positions in semi-darkness, and we can see them strike their poses, usually a wide-legged seated stance, because they do it with a sharp, deliberate movement, all executed at the same instant. But Western actor aren’t expected to be totally still under just about any ordinary stage circumstances—and no actor who’s not been trained in this technique can manage it. So while they’re sitting without moving about or turning their heads, they aren’t really still. What I believe is supposed to be a Kabuki moment just isn’t, which mars what I think Chong is aiming for theatrically.

Stillness is only the most salient of this kind of problem, the easiest to spot and to describe. There are similar issues with walking—both Noh and Kabuki have very distinctive walking styles and it looked like the cast was trying to approximate them here—and the choreographed fight sequences, which seem to be modeled on Kabuki tachimawari battle techniques. Only Ako, trained and experienced in this performance style, executes it well—and her presence on stage makes the slips and lapses of the Western actors that much more obvious. (In my studies of Asian theater, one of my teachers has been James Brandon of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His department there has a program of presenting Asian theater forms in English with American actors, and I’ve seen taped performances of Kabuki in English. Those actors, who are coached by professionals from the theater they’re emulating, have similar problems because the discipline is different.)

I think I’ve made this all sound much more disastrous than it was. I said that in my mind, I could see the perfect version of what I believe Chong wants, but for an ordinary Western viewer, I suspect none of that is noticeable. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive, or at least hypercritical. Without the execution of the Japanese traditional techniques in Throne, however, we do come back to Diana’s question: “What do you get out of it?” For whatever reason, the Japanese seem taken with Macbeth: aside from Kurosawa’s 1957 treatment, popular Kabuki actor Tamasaburo Bando V became the first onnagata (specialist in female roles in the all-male Kabuki theater) to portray a Western female character when he played Lady Macbeth at Tokyo’s Nissei Theatre in 1976; in the ‘70s and ’80s, director Shozo Sato created a Kabuki Macbeth (and a Kabuki Lady Macbeth); in 1986, New York’s Pan Asian Rep staged Shogun Macbeth; and in 1990, BAM imported the image-dominated, experimental Macbeth by Yukio Ninagawa. The various staging styles aside, what these adaptations all show is the universality of Shakespeare’s play about ambition and treachery, which I believe was Kurosawa’s motivation to make Throne of Blood 53 years ago. (Kurosawa’s been said to have been responding to World War II, which ended just a dozen years before he made the film. Chong has said that he sees the world today as very similarly self-destructive.) But having already demonstrated that (assuming, of course, that the very longevity of Shakespeare’s tragedy hadn’t already made that clear), why translate to the stage what Kurosawa already showed on film? Well, besides making the screenplay accessible in a different medium (not to say, a different language), I contend that it’s the staging style, the theatricality Chong envisioned, that prompts yet another go at the Scottish play à la japonaise. (At the risk of making an unnecessary, and perhaps irrelevant, joke, it begins to sound as if we’re encroaching on the territory of that silly series of ads for Starburst candy where a character calls his son a “contradiction” because he’s “Scotch-Korean.”) If that vision is badly executed, the experiment fails, I’d say. The idea’s not uninteresting, theatrically speaking, but without a much longer training time, and maybe some resident Kabuki or Noh actors in the company, I don’t think it’s viable. Still, the attempt was interesting—even a failed experiment can be worthwhile—and I don’t join my friend Diana in saying it was a painful experience. (I should probably equivocate some here: without my admittedly somewhat rare perspective, other spectators might find far less of interest in the production.)

One thing about which Isherwood was correct is that “most of the actors make little impression.” Except for Ako, as he noted, no one stands out. (Cristofer Jean gets spotlighted as the Forest Spirit, but that’s the role, not so much the performance, that’s prominent. Jean does a fine job of it, however.) Kevin Kenerly as Washizu, much like the other soldiers, has little to do but bluster and strut, He has a couple of choreographed fights with the samurai sword, and he’s convincing enough given the caveat I’ve already issued about the tachimawari, but it even took me a few scenes to be sure which actor was Kenerly as Washizu and which was Danforth Comins as Yoshiako Miki (Banquo) because there’s so little to distinguish one character from another aside from the costumes. (The costumes, which approximate 17th-century Japanese armor and other dress, are beautifully designed by Stefani Mar. They’re modeled more from museum exhibits, I’d say, than from Kabuki or Noh costumes, but they have an air of authenticity. I must add that the battle helmets are wonderfully exotic, with horns, wings, and crescents looming atop the actors’ heads.) Eventually, the plot made the distinction for me, but there’s nothing in the staging that might have approximated, say, a bombastic aragoto (“rough style”) performance from Washizu, as I might have expected in a Kabuki rendition. In fact, in several scenes of great tension with Lady Asaji, while she’s kneeling in stillness, a figure all in white (including her face makeup) except for the blood-red splotches on her kimono, Washizu paces all around her in what looked to me like aimless agitation. That weakens the character (in Kabuki terms, it almost makes him a wagoto, or “soft style,” character), which may align with psychologically realistic Western behavior, but in a traditional Japanese performance, it makes him less than the ruthless protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy as reflected in a Kabuki mirror. Washizu’s fall is more anticlimactic here than tragic. I can’t entirely blame Kenerly for this; it looked like a directorial choice, not an actor’s; but if Chong had been true to the Kabuki or Noh style in such moments, Washizu would have stood stock still, looking like a giant in an oversized costume, or stridden across the stage in slow, heavy steps.

If Chong doesn’t entirely succeed in translating Kurosawa’s film masterpiece to the stage, he has done some intriguing work in the attempt. Isherwood called the effort “an ill-conceived theatrical enterprise,” and Diana agreed with that. The Backstage reviewer, however, asserted that the production “succeeds and then some” in its ambitious aims. I don’t agree with either estimation, but I ended feeling it was a worthwhile theater experience—although I may have had an inside track.

[For some explanation of the Kabuki terms and techniques I mentioned in this report, see my recent article, “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams” (1 November).]

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