Aclash between style and content makes for an uneasy partnership in the Shaw Festival’s production of Fay and Michael Kanin’s “Rashomon,” a 1959 stage adaptation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s stories in which the details of a rape and murder are related from several different points of view.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to understand the attraction this story holds for Neil Munro, one of Canada’s most daringly innovative directors. And it’s an important experiment for the Shaw, which has staged other difficult works from continental Europe over the years, but has never before attempted a major work from Asia.
The problem with “Rashomon,” no matter how interesting a programming choice, is that the script poses seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Because it draws from several stories told in different narrative voices, there is no cohesive style, andthe play perches uncomfortably between murder mystery, morality drama and satire. Akira Kurosawa filmed an adaptation and had his own problems finding a framework for a story so intimate and yet so epic.
Munro has attempted to embrace both approaches by confining the action of the crime to designer Leslie Frankish’s central playing area, a bamboo-covered mountain ridge that rises to the rafters and lets actors disappear as if toward heaven; in contrast he places the witness-narrators (a priest, wig maker and woodcutter) along a narrow, empty strip at the front of the stage, under the shadow of the Rashomon gate, after which the play is named.
He also mixes Eastern and Western acting styles and employs color-blind casting, with the central family unit composed of black, white and Japanese actors. The latter is not at issue, but the mishmash of genres and acting styles is. The actors who adopt the more formal aspects of traditional Japanese theater are not always comfortable, and the result doesn’t jell, it grates.
Some of the problems are script-related; there are definite shifts in language and tone as different characters tell their side of the story. But Munro, who is also the festival’s associate director, lets the final story slide into something akin to a Three Stooges skit, further distancing us from the horrific nature of this double crime.
His failure to draw audiences into the emotional core of the work (or is it a deliberate choice?) means we’re uninvolved in the act that spawns the debate, and if we don’t care that it’s happened, it’s unlikely we’ll care about the reasons behind it. An intellectual dialogue on the subjectivity of truth does not, on its own, make for enticing theater.
But it does make for terrific post-show discussions, and, if nothing else, the ferocious arguments overheard in the lobby during intermission vindicate Munro. He wants to make people think and talk about the theater, and “Rashomon” will most certainly do that.