Out, Damn Sword

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, often referred to as “the Scottish play” by those superstitious about the play’s legendary curse, has reemerged as Shogun Macbeth from Pan Asian Repertory’s vault. This original and highly stylized version, adapted by John R. Briggs, is set in 12th century Japan, in the midst of a samurai society during a time of warring clans. Ernest Abuba, who created the title role in Pan Asian’s original 1986 production, returns this time as director, stating that the intention for its revival was in order to “demonstrate the exceptional talent of the new generation of Asian American actors.” Like a master swordsman, he swiftly hits his mark. Wonderfully cast with Kaipo Schwab as Macbeth and Rosanne Ma as the fiery Fujin (Lady) Macbeth; three punk/Kabuki-styled Yojos (witches) played by Shigeko Suga (who also appeared in the 1986 version), Claro Austria, and Emi F. Jones; as well as Keoni Scott as a commanding Shogun Duncan, all of the players infuse the play with power and energy. Ma’s Lady Macbeth begins the play as tightly controlled and smoldering. The sexually charged relationship between her and Schwab’s malleable Macbeth is palpable, and their mutual descent into mania and madness threatens to alight them, as well as anyone else within range.

Punctuated by full-on spark-inducing swordfighting scenes choreographed expertly by Michael G. Chin, the violent action is also balanced by Japanese movement artist Sachiyo Ito’s touches throughout the piece, including the tea ceremony and other traditional behaviors. The choreography of the Yojos (here, ancient demons known as obake ) as yet a third movement style seems at once freeform and wild, while actually functioning expressionistically like some kind of grotesque ballet. Not to mention their creepy vocalizations. They are at once chilling, amusing, and adept in both observing as well as spurring the characters’ actions like rickshaw drivers gone mad. On the other hand, I found that the interjections of the traveling poet and holy man Biwa Hoshi (played by the talented Tom Matsusaka), who steps in between scenes to deliver a haunted poetic narration, almost detracted from the otherwise tight structure. It kept reminding me I was sitting in a theater watching “a production” instead of continuing to be swept along by the epic story.

E. Calvin Ahn plays Macbeth’s nemesis MacDuff as well as serving as the production’s Fight Captain. Sacha Iskra brings Fujin MacDuff’s own tragedy heroically to life. The supporting cast (and their exciting battles) adds lots of color and emotion, including the Shogun’s sons played by Marcus Ho and Claro De Los Reyes; Macbeth’s best friend Banquo played by Ariel Estrada; and the loyal samurai played by Ken Park, Ron Nakahara, and James Rana. Yoko Hyun and Nadia Gan, both in multiple roles, effectively play young family sons, servants, as well as the drunken gatekeepers in a welcome moment of levity amongst all the tragic events.

The costumes designed by Carol A. Pelletier were impressionistic of the ornate garb of the period, appearing to be well vented and layered to allow the actors to move and change easily throughout all of the complex proceedings. The brocaded shin and arm guards, and layered, sometimes flowing robes, or even basic warrior uniforms, were evocative while remaining functional. The almost-fright wigs and kabuki style makeup of the Yojos, and also the stylized elements on Ma, all worked to enhance the high drama.

The lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan helped to illustrate Charlie Corcoran’s Buddha-dominated set, with its multi-layered and cleverly pocketed spaces for the characters to inhabit. Richly colored pools of light, smoke effects, backlighting, and dramatic blackouts were used to transform the many environments, especially the floor-to-ceiling statue and archway entrance. After the pivotal murder scene where husband, wife, and the entire stage are bathed in bloody red light (pictured), their guilt, madness, and ultimate redress only begin to heighten.

There’s something else inherent in the Kamakura period (1192-1333) that informs Macbeth here, the original play having been written four centuries later. Maybe it’s the richer, longer and more turbulent warrior period, which elicits an even stronger feeling of sacrilege to the royal Shogunate tradition. Tisa Chang, Artistic Producing Director, explains that “...Briggs’ inspiration came from the parallels of Shakespeare’s tragic characters with the philosophy that guided the samurai way of life.” It makes Shakespeare’s most haunted tragedy that much more compelling. As does the omnipresent Buddha watching over the participants (as well as the audience) who partake in all the grisly action, while he bears his silent and unwavering witness.

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