By Richard Ades
No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.
The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.
With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.
What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.
Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.
Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.
But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.
Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.
Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.
Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.
Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.
Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.
Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).
The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.
The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.
The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.