Shogun Macbeth @ Julia Miles Theater, New York

cast list
E. Calvin Ahn, Claro Austria, Claro de los Reyes, Ariel Estrada, Nadia Gan, Marcus Ho, Yoko Hyun, Sacha Iskra, Emi F. Jones, Rosanne Ma, Tom Matsusaka, Ron Nakahara, Ken Park, James Rana, Kaipo Schwab, Keoni Scott, Shigeko Suga

directed by
Ernest Abuba
Since when did the Scottish Play turn Japanese? Since adaptor John R. Briggs took his red pen and scissors to Shakespeare’s Macbeth twenty years ago, producing Shogun Macbeth, a cultural transmutation of the Bard’s original, which resets the play in feudal Japan in the twelfth century, when the samurai way of life was alive and well.

As revived by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre as part of their Masterpiece Cycle, Shogun Macbeth is a novel attempt at reinventing Shakespeare.

Though the recent Rupert Goold-directed production of Macbeth on Broadway starring Patrick Stewart rethought the play as a Soviet narrative without changing the text, here elements of the play have been altered (mainly as regards characters’ titles and the names of places) in order to accommodate the new Japanese setting.
The plot of the play is the same as its source. Three witches (here called “yojos” and presented as fiendish wig-wearing kabuki-style figures) prophesy the ascendence of Macbeth to the highest office in the land, the shogunate. They tell Macbeth that no man of woman born can bring him down, but in order to seize power, he must kill the current shogun, an act he commits reluctantly upon the goading of his wife, Fujin Macbeth. Of course, the seeds of Macbeth’s demise are planted early on; it’s the intricate plotting of it all that keeps an audience hooked. This adaptation has done wise not to stray from Shakespeare’s general narrative.

Shogun Macbeth‘s major change to the text is in adding a misguided narrator character, a choice that adds little to the merit of the work. Called a Biwa Hoshi in the program, the narrator is described as a “music-playing priest.” His presence here seems to be an attempt at contextualizing the play, but he’s more tacked-on than integral to the proceedings. He speaks only to convey vague haiku-style moral messages. But this narrator only serves to sidetrack the main action; this new version only needs to trust in the strength of its central narrative.

As regards the look of the play, the two-dimensional set by Charlie Corcoran, dominated by a cut-out Buddha statue, seems static next to the energy of the performers as they execute Sachiyo Ito’s Japanese movement choreography, fighting with aplomb. The quality of the performances varies (some overacting can be detected), but there is one standout performance amongst the bunch – Rosanne Ma as Fujin Macbeth. From the start, she portrays Fujin Macbeth as willing to manipulate Macbeth in order to climb the social ladder. By the end of the play, she’s gone totally mad, and the physicality of her performance, her fingers outstretched in overexcitement, perfectly conveys her fallen status.

Despite Ma’s outstanding performance, too much about this production was lacking for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Sporadic lazy performances and over-the-top lighting by Victer En Yu Tan distracted from the strengths of the script.

Though setting the play in a different time period at first seems a novel idea, the necessity of a glossary of words and place names in the program detracts from a non-Japanese speaker’s enjoyment of the production. It’s true that companies should be able to look at the works of Shakespeare from a variety of new and varied angles (even companies during Shakespeare’s times eschewed the use of accurate period sets and costumes), but there ought to be some new light shed on the play as a result rather than additional distraction.

While I appreciate adaptor Briggs’s attempt at allowing Asian American actors a go at Shakespeare’s text, it’s unclear exactly what the change in setting is meant to signify. If it’s meant as an attack on the values of feudal societies, more context is necessary in order to convey this to an audience. As it stands, Shogun Macbeth is merely an interesting dramatic exercise. It has the potential to say something new, but instead it rehashes what we’ve already seen, tossing in a few samurai swords and a fog machine for effect.

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