The convoluted stories and colorful casts of Shakespeare’s plays are just begging to be thrown into clever environments — for every “traditional” production, you’ll find one that twists the story into a surprising new incarnation. Twice within the past few years, the pastoral comedy As You Like It, with its feuding families and domestic strife, has resurfaced in an unlikely setting: nineteenth-century Japan. Kenneth Branagh helmed a made-for-TV BBC film version in 2006, which won both accolades and awards. Now, on a slightly smaller stage, the ambitious Prospect Theater Company also vaults to feudal Japan in the new musical Honor, which borrows loosely from the play’s confused couplings and mistaken identities.
The source material is problematic, not because of the writing, but because of Shakespeare’s superhuman ability to thread together disparate themes and moods. With a nod to the elite and a wink at the groundlings, he weds lovely, elevated language and sophisticated ideas with spurts of crass humor and crude behavior.
Unfortunately, this deft mesh of styles forms the central problem with Honor, which struggles to find a cohesive voice. The issue isn’t Shakespeare — it’s the challenge of adapting such resonant material.
It's not that writers Peter Mills (book, music, and lyrics) and Cara Reichel (book and music) haven’t constructed an interesting mix of characters and situations. When the power-hungry Katsunori violently dethrones his older brother, Takehiro, their kingdom is ripped apart. Takehiro and several of his men flee to the nearby forest; his daughter, Hana, fearing for her life under her uncle’s rule, disguises herself as a man and sneaks away with her cousin Kiku in tow. Eventually, Hana and Kiku cross paths (and fall in love, of course) with yet another set of brothers. Yoshiro is desperate to avenge their father’s death at the hands of one of Katsunori’s men, while his older brother, Ichiro, pledges allegiance to the new kingdom.
These characters form the dramatic part of the story, with music to match: eruptive, emotional ballads that echo the big-hearted sentimentality of Les Miserables — with a delicate, guitar-plucked, Asian influence. Animating such one-dimensional characters is also a challenge, and the performers mostly acquit themselves well. Diane Veronica Phelan shows some winning tomboy moxie as the resolute Hana, but she and Vincent Rodriguez III, as the spirited Yoshiro, don’t bring much dimension to these flat characters.
However, this being Shakespeare, there are also less moody plots afoot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most enjoyable aspects of this comedy are, well, its comic characters. As the court fool, Nobuyuki, David Shih’s unrestrained performance initially sticks out as too over-the-top. But, as he prances and puns his way through the woods — as appointed and begrudging bodyguard to the two young girls—his knowing delivery and impish physicality provide some well-anchored (and much-needed) comic relief. Unfortunately, he suffers a bit from an overlong and overly metaphoric ballad about a “Little Gray Stone” game that circles into oblivion (but does contain the wonderfully cheeky line, “I’m determined to be indeterminate”).
A subplot involving an endearing forest family brings out the production’s best music — Romney Piamonte brings a lovely lyrical voice and superb comic timing to Kuro, a lazy son who has fallen head-over-feet in love with Mitsuko, a neighbor girl played with wide-eyed, dim-witted charm by Jaygee Macapugay. Mitsuko, of course, is smitten with the cross-dressing Hana. Reichel and Mills have penned a fantastic trio for Mitsuko, Kuro, and the elfish Nobuyuki, in which smart lyrics laced with irony convey the humor of their misplaced affections.
Erica Beck Hemminger’s sleek set mixes simple screens with Evan Purcell’s vibrant lighting to create a sumptuous landscape for the performers. Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum has arranged some gripping fight scenes, and choreographer Dax Valdes uses actors holding tree branches and poles of bamboo to inventively depict the forest scenes. Sidney Shannon’s stunning costumes — featuring glossy kimonos in a bouquet of colors — also add to the production’s visual beauty.
However, the design’s cohesiveness only underlines the unevenness of the songs and stories. A confusing structure randomly places an enthusiastic full-cast anthem midway through the first act; not only do the performers emote and belt as if this were the finale, but Reichel also sets up a tableau of characters and relationships that seem unfamiliar and strange this early in the story.
“What does honor mean?” Hana asks as the production begins; as it closes, we don’t have a definitive answer. Still, it’s always a treat to see what the Prospect Theater Company dreams up — recent daring productions have included The Rockae, a hard-rock version of The Bacchae, and West Moon Street, an elegant Oscar Wilde-an comedy of manners. Honor may seem like a work in progress, but it’s definitely a project worth pursuing.