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WOW!

Kabuki Lady Macbeth

Conceived and directed by Shozo Sato, written by Karen Sunde

Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 18 March - 1 May 2005

(previews 11-17 March)

Review by Nightwing

'Wow!'

At the end of Kabuki Lady Macbeth, that was the response from my husband (the non-Philistine) when I asked him what he thought of it. I had to agree. For more than two hours, we had been absolutely enthralled as the drama unfolded. It was irrelevant that we knew what was going to happen. No matter that this new play was "based" on Shakespeare's original and therefore gained licence to change details, the gist was critical to the story - Lady M, driven by ambition, is instrumental in her husband's murder of Duncan (here Shogun rather than King). But, as the consequential ripples spread, with others becoming touched tragically by events, she loses her grip on sanity and then her life.

This was my introduction to American theatre and there had been a number of revelations - as expected, tickets were substantially cheaper and the atmosphere was more relaxed than in Europe, but we were surprised by people being allowed in partway through the first act and were obviously not the only ones who noticed a cellphone ringing. By that point, the intensity of the action was so great that we weren't alone in initially thinking the faint music was part of the action. Still, the culprit wasn't seen again after the interval.

For the entire cast, the sparse, sometimes simple dialogue lifted effortlessly off the page, enriched by the movement, the costumes and make up. Every word, every nuance proved significant in its own way. Barbara Robertson, as Lady M, was nothing short of brilliant. The Witches (Laura T Fisher, Elizabeth Laidlaw and George Keating) acted as the chorus, both driving and punctuating the story. In roles that, in the original, it's tempting to overblow, they were superb, working as one, then individually, then as one again effortlessly. In fact, it would not be overreaching to say that praise applies to the whole cast. Every detail, down to the last eye movement, was sure and certain and conveyed the wealth of meaning, the richness enhancing a familiar story in the way that kabuki requires. And it was done as if for this unique performance, with no indication of the hundreds of hours of rehearsal that had taken Kabuki Lady Macbeth from words on a page to a spectacular production repeated eight times a week.

And, yes, I know that, by now, you're probably thinking "yeah . . . yeah . . . but what about Tony . . .".

I'd read a number of reviews - none bad and mostly very good - and Tony had been variously described as "excellent", "gripping" and "particularly engaging" so I knew in advance I was not going to feel let down and I wasn't disappointed. Anthony Starke plays two roles in Kabuki Lady Macbeth. In Act I, he is the Messenger who brings word of Macbeth's great victory in battle to Lady M. As the events of the day are acted out for her, and her lady-in-waiting, the description is powerful enough to pull the audience in, too. Against seemingly impossible odds, Macbeth vanquishes numerous adversaries, culminating in the death of the traitor Kurokawa. Time and again, Macbeth has fended off attack, with Kurokawa portrayed as a monster - a fire-breathing dragon who is ultimately destroyed by a flick of a wrist, a lift of an arm . . . Messenger gives to Macbeth - who has not yet appeared - a near immortality, taking his actions from certain defeat to overwhelming victory as if that was a foregone conclusion we should never have doubted. And, after playing out the scene with great panache, he presents Lady M with the message he has been entrusted with - no elaborate boasting here, just news of Macbeth's promotion and imminent return, with the added titbit that the Shogun will be visiting.

Messenger is a role that is inextricably linked with Tony's principal role as Macduff. For Macduff is driven from Macbeth's side by the latter's actions when Macbeth becomes the traitor - the fire-breathing dragon who has turned against his allies. Macduff must then take on the role Messenger assigns to Macbeth - that of the hero snatching victory.

Macduff has been introduced before he appears, by Macbeth (Michael F Goldberg), who cannot resist giving his wife his own interpretation of the battle when he returns home. Again, the supernatural has influenced events, with Macbeth proclaiming that his mastery of his sword was "so pure . . . it shattered the air". The words are, at times, so similar to Messenger's description that perhaps the enactment had come from his Lord after all, but was not included in the scroll, for he had described how Macbeth stood still, watching a seven foot spear hurtling at him and with "one lift of his arm it was shattered."

There is nothing at this point to convey that Macduff is anything but a mere mortal; Macbeth even describes him as marvelling at his own actions - "my friend Macduff called me magic" (although he is probably nearer the mark when he continues "but the Shogun said I went mad"). Macbeth believes the Witches when they tell him that "none who bears the sword of man can harm Macbeth". Despite having himself felt the power that great emotion or great danger can invoke, he does not fear Macduff, even after he has ordered the murders of his wife and children. Macbeth even taunts his former friend with the Witches' promise, only to have Macduff tell him that he has "grown beyond life, beyond death" and that his sword "is not of man, it is my soul, it is honor and as I strike you I cannot fail".

Just as he portrays Messenger's enthusiasm for his Lord's actions, Tony covers the range of emotions in Macduff effortlessly - there is nothing too exaggerated in the shifts he goes through, from the niggling concern over Lady M's interest in his family to the despair that takes him to the brink of suicide when he has defeated Macbeth. The transition from those depths to the realisation that he has to carry on, shouldering new responsibilities of his own, is subtle - but marked - and the difference between Macduff and Macbeth is emphasised by the former's quiet removal from the stage and hence the influence of the Witches.

In kabuki, the actor is so submerged in costume and make up that the transition from western acting to the stylised exaggeration must be a steep learning curve. While the other principals in Kabuki Lady Macbeth were experienced, Tony was tackling the challenge for the first time. As you would expect, given the wide range of characters he has effortlessly created, he rose to it magnificently and both Macduff and Messenger were delights.

That "effortlessly", of course, is because of the time and effort put in before the audience - be it theatrical, tv or movie - ever puts in an appearance. And the final piece in the creation is the ability to play the roles without the slightest sign of what it has taken to get there. All Macduff's emotions are displayed in the make up and the over-all "look" - pride, concern, fear, fury, grief. Both the complete image and the individual detail show the audience what is going on, signalling how they should react. Shozo Sato is known to be a perfectionist so perhaps this was a meeting of minds. It was certainly a huge challenge and one Tony rose to admirably. There wasn't the slightest indication he was the "baby" of the kabuki world or that he was returning to the stage after a long interval. It would have been easy to take on a less difficult project after that gap. So why Kabuki Lady Macbeth? Twenty years ago, Tony saw Barbara Robertson in Shozo Sato's Kabuki Medea. His reaction? 'Wow!'


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