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Shogun Macbeth

Pan Asian Repertory's sometimes inspired production transposes Shakespeare's play to 12th-century Japan. logo
Kaipo Schwab and Rosanne Ma
in Shogun Macbeth
(© Corky Lee)
The Scottish play isn't so Scottish in Pan Asian Repertory's production of Shogun Macbeth, now at the Julia Miles Theater. First presented by the company in 1986, this adaptation by John R. Briggs moves the action to 12th-century Japan. But while some aspects of this cultural transposition are inspired, the uneven production doesn't always show off the concept to best advantage. Indeed, the various actors employed under director Ernest Abuba are not as adept as they should be in interpreting both the verse and the emotions that lie underneath.

In many ways, the time and location are ideal for a play about an ambitious military man who kills his leader, considering the feudal military dictatorships and warring clans that dominated the political field back then. And so it is that Macbeth (Kaipo Schwab) murders Shogun Duncan (Keoni Scott) following the prophecies of the three Yojos (Shigeko Suga, Claro Austria, and Emi F. Jones), the supernatural figures who sub for Shakespeare's witches.

One of the more questionable additions to the play is the figure of Biwa Hoshi (Tom Matsusaka), who makes poetic observations that would seemingly be intended to add local flavor, as they certainly don't seem to serve a dramatic purpose. Transforming the porter's knocking at the gate scene into a kyogen sketch -- a form of Japanese theatrical clowning -- is a good idea, but in practice, the scene is less than engaging.

Alterations to the text also include the changing of place names and title designations (i.e. "Fujin" instead of "Lady," and "Ryoshu," meaning a landholding lord, in place of "Thane"). There's also a smattering of Japanese thrown into the dialogue, and the use of culturally specific Shinobi -- better known to Westerners as ninjas -- to kill Banquo (Ariel Estrada) at Macbeth's bidding. The language substitution employed in the play is sometimes jarring, such as Macbeth's new hallucinogenic query, "Is this a shoto I see before me?" but the majority of what's spoken is still recognizably Shakespeare.

Schwab starts off well, presenting a jovial interpretation of the title character whose charms and smiles do much to set those around him at ease. However, as the play and Macbeth's own actions turn darker, Schwab gives us a superficial display of madness rather than a more complex psychological exploration. Rosanne Ma is luminous as his partner-in-crime, Fujin Macbeth; she speaks volumes in her stillness and measured tones, and is also graceful in the stylized rituals she performs that give a vibrant theatricality to the "unsex me here" and "out out damn spot" monologues. Estrada cuts a heroic figure as Banquo, but doesn't reveal much beneath the surface. The three Yojos go too far with their histrionics, while E. Calvin Ahn tends to over-emote as MacDuff. This is actually a problem that afflicts many of the remaining cast members, as well. Sacha Iskra gives us a feisty Fujin MacDuff, and contributes nicely to one of the strongest elements in the production, which are the fight scenes, choreographed by Michael G. Chin.

And ultimately, the production can't escape unfavorable comparisons to Akira Kurusawa's film Ran, an absolutely brilliant cultural transposition of King Lear to Feudal Japan, as well as the master filmmaker's own take on Macbeth, Throne of Blood.

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