Eugene Weekly : Theater : 9.2.10


Drums of History 
Throne of Blood and American Night in Ashland
by Suzi Steffen

Turns out Oregon Shakespeare Festival-goers aren’t resistant to new, complex, sometimes wild work: American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, the first in the American Revolutions History Cycle series, is sold out. That’s right, stone-cold sold out for the rest of the year.

Juan José (René Millán, middle) thanks his citizenship backers (David Kelly, left, and Daisuke Tsuji, right) in American Night. Photo by Jenny Graham

Still, you might be able to get a ticket or two if you go into the OSF box office early, grab a number and then come back “at 6 o’clock, and we mean at or before six,” one of the box office folks said to a patron who received the final waiting number the day I was there. If people returned tickets, and you’re lucky in your number, hey presto! You’ll be in the midst of L.A.-based Culture Clash’s creation, what I called in a blog post a “history-drenched, half-undirectable, half-sketch, wild and woolly story/process/THING of a play.”

The plot nominally concerns one Juan José (René Millán), a legal immigrant from Mexico who’s pulling an all-nighter before his citizenship test. Juan José falls into a kind of trance, what some have described as “a fever dream” but what I think of as the caffeine-induced mania of any all-nighter, and he starts hallucinating episodes from U.S. history — ones that won’t be on the exam. 

Everyone in the play portrays approximately 400 different characters, everyone but Millán, who has plenty to do in any case. The cast seems even tighter, if that’s possible, than those in last year’s Servant of Two Masters, with Kimberly Scott, Daisuke Tsuji and Rodney Gardiner providing many of the standout moments and Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya and Herbert Siguenza splendidly balancing the rest of the OSF regulars. 

A Manzanar scene, cut down as it was from earlier scripts, is still far too long, and Fidel and the raft seem like little more than tossed-in references that should simply be cut entirely. American Night’s postmodern pastiche, its sheer comedy-skit craziness (the ninja hare vies with the Japanese quiz show for my favorite sketch) — well, the script still needs some editing and a firmer directorial hand, but it’s worth the ticket price (if you can get a ticket), and it’s worth living through the first mounted version of what’s sure to change over time with different cast and directors and as Culture Clash rewrites and revises, as history changes and evolves and as more immigrants keep coming to America.

In contrast to the kinetic, frenetic, perpertual motion of American Night, the visually stunning Throne of Blood holds its power coiled within each character, tightly bound and wound into the familiar tale of Macbeth set in feudal Japan. Director (and adapter from Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful, stunning 1957 movie) Ping Chong takes a quite theatrical film and slides it neatly into the confines of the Bowmer Theatre. 

Though several reviewers have called Kevin Kenerly, playing Washizu (the Macbeth character, a reincarnation of the superb Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune, the true revelation in Throne of Blood comes once again from Danforth Comins. Comins, who blew the lid off the festival in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earlier this season, makes his Banquo-like character’s life (Yoshiaki Miki) a meditation on the nature of friendship and betrayal. In addition, Aki plays Lady Asaji (yes, the Lady Macbeth-like character) with eerie precision, and Cristofer Jean makes the Forest Spirit gorgeously haunting. 

Scenic deisgner Christopher Acebo, who rather stunningly also designed Cat  and Hamlet, projection designer Maya Ciarrochi and the other designers deserve billing at least as high as that of the actors. From the beginning seconds of this bleakly arresting visual feast, with music/sound designer Todd Barton’s help, the hour and 45 minute (no intermission!) play captures the senses and creates both loneliness and active horror. As disturbing as last year’s Macbeth was, with its child witches creeping disgustingly around the stage, Throne of Blood leaves its audience with a far more difficult sense of fate and loss. The final image of Washizu, several times the betrayer and now the betrayed, a St. Sebastian without the sainthood, lingers, as does the relentless atmosphere of Spider Web fortress, where men and women lose each other and themselves. 

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