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Kai (JT Walker III, left) prepares to do battle with Kabuki (Amy Lay) in a scene from Circle of Blood. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

If you want to enjoy Circle of Blood, be sure to read the printed synopsis beforehand. That will make it easier to navigate your way around its bizarre vision of Japan in the year 2057. It also will help you figure out an elaborate back story that’s explained only in occasional flashbacks and snatches of dialogue.

The good news is that the lack of explanation means director Julie Klein and her cast and crew are free to focus on the production’s true mission: entertaining us with scenes of menace and stylized mayhem cleverly combined with images from the graphic novel on which the tale is based.

The story, borrowed from David Mack’s Kabuki, centers on the young assassin of the same name (Amy Lay). Though she was raised by a now-broken man called the General (Tom Cardinal), her actual father is Kai (JT Walker III), a crime lord whose long-ago attack left her mother blind and impregnated. As if that weren’t bad enough, Kai returned years later, after Kabuki’s mother died giving birth to her, and disfigured his adolescent daughter on her mother’s grave.

The action begins several years after that, when Kabuki is a young woman pondering what to get Kai for Father’s Day. Just kidding! She’s now a hitwoman working for the Noh, a government body attempting to prevent criminal gangs from taking over the country. She’s also the star of a TV newscast that offers cryptic warnings to evildoers.

All that changes when Kai returns to Japan and begins threatening the order the Noh has worked so hard to establish.

Shadowbox Live’s last foray into Japanese-inspired storytelling was 2015’s The Tenshu, an elaborate production marred by a scattershot story and a leaden pace (though I’ve been told the tempo was speeded up in later performances). While not quite as elaborate, Circle of Blood is far more watchable thanks to Jimmy Mak’s spare script and a brisk pace that wraps things up in less than 90 minutes. The show is not exactly deep and it’s hardly uplifting—the body count rivals that of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies—but it efficiently moves us along from one set piece to the next.

All of the characters are deftly portrayed, from Lay’s methodically lethal Kabuki to Cardinal’s morose General, Walker’s evil Kai and a raft of eccentric henchmen. But the biggest attraction is the nifty interplay between the live action and images from the graphic novel, which are displayed on five large video screens. An additional boon is the accompanying music, composed and performed by Matt Hahn, Stev Guyer, Kevin Patrick Sweeney and Brandon Smith. Occasional vocals are beautifully supplied by Summit J. Starr.

Circle of Blood may favor style over substance, but the style is something to behold.

Circle of Blood runs through Nov. 5 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays (beginning Oct. 11). Running time: about 1 hour, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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