Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pan Asian Rep: Shogun Macbeth

Twelfth Century Japan and Eleventh Century Scotland were not totally dissimilar. Both were feudal societies with their own supernatural lore and the occasional outbreak of swordplay. Transferring Shakespeare’s Macbeth from the Medieval Highlands to Kamakura Era Japan actually makes far more sense than most radical setting changes for Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the seemingly compulsive need to place every tragedy in a thinly veiled Nazi Germany). In fact, Shogun Macbeth has already proved successful for the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, so as part of their Masterpiece Cycle, they have revived their production for a limited run, which officially opened last night.

Shame on anyone who needs the plot of Macbeth explained to them. Happily, Pan Asian Rep follows the original Shakespeare fairly closely, making a few linguistic and stylistic changes here and there. Instead of a dagger before Macbeth, he sees a shoto. They have also incorporated some traditional Japanese motifs, like the Biwa Hoshi, or “lute priest,” who serves as Shakespeare’s narrator. However, Macbeth still opens with the three witches (here called Yojo) foretelling Macbeth’s ascension to the throne (Shogunate), stoking his ambition and thereby setting in motion a bloody chain of events.

As Lady/Fujin Macbeth, Rosanne Ma is fantastic, subtly hinting she might be a little off, well before her “out damned spot” mental breakdown. She is completely believable and frankly sometimes creepy as the manipulative wife, goading Macbeth into murder. Kaipo Schwab seems to play Macbeth as a brutish savage, but given the body count he racks up, it is totally credible interpretation, which he carries off well. The formerly Scottish Play has a reputation for humbling actors, but here the two primary leads consistently rise to the challenge of the play whose name they cannot speak.

Designed by Charlie Corcoran, the simple set and prominent Buddha backdrop are visually dramatic, equally compatible with the scenes of supernatural mystery and the Kurosawa-esque samurai clashes. The Yojo/witches effectively play on Japanese archetypes, specifically the supernatural woman with preternaturally long tresses, accentuating the play’s uncanny themes. While Michael G. Chin’s fight sequences and Yoko Hyun’ elegant tea services firmly root the production in its new setting.

Briskly directed by Ernest Abuba, Macbeth is just over two svelte hours, not including the intermission. It makes for a quite manageable dose of high culture wrapped in a very entertaining package, and featuring a particularly noteworthy performance by Ma. Pan Asian’s satisfying revival runs at the Julia Miles Theater through December 7th.