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Throne of Blood

Ping Chong offers up a stylish but only intermittently successful stage adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's film classic.

Kevin Kenerly in Throne of Blood
(© Jenny Graham)
It seems fitting that Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film classic Throne of Blood, based upon Shakespeare's Macbeth, should in turn be reimagined for the stage. Director/adaptor Ping Chong's Throne of Blood, now at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, is an admirably stylish effort, but one that only intermittently matches the power of its source material.

The work is set in Feudal Japan, and chronicles the rise and fall of Washizu (Kevin Kenerly), whom a forest spirit (Cristofer Jean) prophesies will ascend in political stature, eventually becoming the master of Spider Web Castle. Washizu's wife, Lady Asaji (Ako) urges her husband to seize the power promised to him by murdering Lord Kuniharu (Jonathan Haugen) and eliminating Miki (Danforth Comins), Washizu's best friend and the only other witness to the spirit's prophecy -- which also includes the promise of a great destiny for Miki's son (Daniel Marmion).

Chong draws from Noh and Kabuki traditions in his staging, but also includes filmic sequences projected onto a large horizontal screen at the top of the stage, stylized battles, and other techniques that are less tied to Eastern performance forms. The result is often bold and intriguing, but occasionally forced and ineffective. In one of the worst missteps of the production, Chong over-amplifies and distorts the voice of the forest spirit and has Jean laugh maniacally after each appearance, making the character a cartoonish villain, as opposed to the eerie, soft-spoken creature from the Kurosawa film.

While Kurosawa did not feature any actual Shakespearean dialogue in the film, Chong's script includes a nod to the play Macbeth with the inclusion of the line "Something wicked this way comes" prior to the forest spirit's first appearance. Chong then also peppers some of the Bard's phrases from other plays into the dialogue, as one character demands his "pound of flesh" and another states that "all's well that ends well."

Kenerly ably conveys Washizu's doubts and fears, but doesn't demonstrate enough of the character's ambitious nature. Chong also often has the actor manically running about the stage, which further dilutes the power of his performance. Ako moves with a quiet grace, and her frequent use of stillness is equally potent. Comins is consistently engaging and does a fine job with one of Chong's best-written speeches within the play, a rather poetic monologue about sleep that he delivers following Miki and Washizu's encounter with the forest spirit.

The remainder of the cast is uneven, with some of them unable to convincingly move in the stylized manner the production requires. This is most egregious in a fan dance, performed by one of the men in the cast during a grand banquet, which seems embarrassingly inept.

The production also runs into trouble when trying to translate some of the film's most potent images to the stage. Sadly, this includes the show's finale, which now requires an extended blackout for a costume change that robs the production of the forward momentum it needs to end on a strong note.