Review: New 'Throne' is still bloody

When a novel is adapted for film, some fairly major changes are necessarily part of the process. When you adapt a play for the movies, not so much. It's often mainly a process of what's known as "opening it up."

Adapting a film to the stage comes with a dose of what we might call "closing it down." A case in point is "Throne of Blood," Ping Chong's new stage adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's 1957 film classic, which follows the movie not just in its plot, setting, characters and themes, but almost scene for scene.

"Throne of Blood" had its world premiere Saturday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by multimedia artist/director/choreographer Chong. If you like the movie, you'll probably like the play. If you look for something new, say, a drama that differs from the Kurosawa's film, as it differed from Shakespeare's play, you'll probably be disappointed.

In the movie, Kurosawa imagined Shakespeare's tale of prophecy, ambition and blood set in medieval Japan and seen through the stark lens of traditional Japanese Noh theater. The Macbeth character is Washizu, Lady Macbeth is Asaji, and Banquo has become Miki.

One of the more interesting changes Kurosawa and his co-writers made was to put the fateful prophecies not in the mouths of three weird sisters but that of a mysterious forest spirit lifted from a crone character in Noh drama.

Washizu (Kevin Kenerly) and Miki (Danforth Comins), lost in Spider Web Forest, encounter the spirit (Cristofer Jean), who makes the usual predictions. Chong and his designers have faithfully re-created the scene from the movie. Jean, in spectral white costume and makeup so bright he almost glows, sits in a hovel, spinning, which puts us in mind of Ariadne, except that this thread leads our hero not out of a literal maze but into an existential one.

Asaji (Ako) makes Lady Macbeth seem almost like a soccer mom. As Chong says in the play's notes, she is more an Iago than a Lady Macbeth. She is simply evil beyond any question of motive. Ako's Asaji even looks like the actress Isuzu Yamada in the film.

As she works on Washizu, her logic is unassailable, and horrifying. She speaks her lines as if they are frozen syllables falling from her mouth. She moves with formal economy, her slippers making creepy sounds, as in the movie.

Kenerly plays Washizu with a good deal more humanity than did Toshiro Mifune, who tended to scowl and bark his lines. Washizu, like Macbeth, is not the sharpest sword in the castle, and Kenerly's performance hints at the tragedy of a man whose fate might have been different were he stronger and smarter. Chong has said he feels sorry for Washizu in a way, and we do, too.

Kurosawa's film is full of exterior shots of Spider Web Forest, the confusing maze that protects Spider Web Castle, and other cinematic marvels that can't be produced on the stage. Chong has chosen to represent many of these in video projections above the stage, which were designed by Maya Ciarrocchi. Thus we see impressionistic images of the battlements of Spider Web Castle, birds acting as omens, the climactic march of the forest on the castle to fulfil the prophecy.

The projections are more than atmospheric. They act a bit like a chorus in pointing to what's going on (although there's a more traditional chorus in both film and play in several peasants who gossip throughout). The projections make seeing the play feel rather cinematic, as do Darren McCroom's jaw-dropping lights and Todd Barton's abstract music.

The music plays as large a role here as Masaru Satô's score did in the film. Especially chilling are the shrieks of what I take to be a shakuhachi flute.

Chong makes no attempt to capture the martial goings-on of the film. There are no arrows flying, and the sword fights are impressionistic dances, reflecting a belief that combat realism isn't necessarily more effective than symbolic representation. Washizu obviously can't be pincushioned by his men on the stage in the way he was in the movie's famous scene, but I'll say no more here.

Chong has warmed Kurosawa's bleak world very slightly with a dash of humor here and there, but "Throne of Blood" remains Greek-like in its insistence on the implacability of fate, and rather Shakespearean in its nihilism. Yet it is ultimately Eastern in its otherworldliness.

So that we don't miss the point, Chong, like Kurosawa before him, underscores it with a chorus at both beginning and end. We see a black stele representing the castle, and the chorus tells us that desire leads to destruction, again and again. Such are the ways of man.

"Throne of Blood" runs about 110 minutes with no intermission. It will play in the Bowmer through Oct. 31.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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