'Throne of Blood' opens at OSF

How do you design an adaptation of an adaptation of an adaptation? Slowly.

Christopher Acebo has been working on "Throne of Blood" for two years. The world premiere of the play, adapted and directed by Ping Chong, will open Saturday, July 24, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre. After its run concludes on Oct. 31, it will move to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in New York City.

"It's all coming together," says Acebo, taking a break from technical rehearsal. "There's a lot of excitement."

Instead of the Macbeths in Scotland, Akira Kurasawa's story followed the warrior Washizu and his ambitious lady in feudal Japan. Instead of the three weird sisters, there were haunted woods and mysterious spirits. The black-and-white film is considered a classic.

"Ping Chong brought the idea to Bill (Rauch, the OSF's artistic director) three years ago," Acebo says. "It just felt like an interesting take. We've take the film sensibility and filtered it through theatrical design.

"But the important thing is, it's not the movie. It's its own special creation."

The OSF's Kevin Kenerly will play Washizu, and Lady Asaji will be played by Ako. Scenic design is by Acebo, costumes by Stefani Mar, lighting by Darren McCroom and music/sound by Todd Barton. The production will also features projections designed by Maya Ciarrocchi.

It was in the 1960s that Chong first encountered Kurosawa's film, which is widely considered one of the greatest adaptations of Shakespeare — although it contains not a word of Shakespeare's dialog. He points out in notes for the play that traditional Noh Theatre — the prism through which Kurosawa saw Shakespeare's play — is poetic and spare with a heavy dose of the supernatural (sound like a Scottish play we know?).

Chong and Rauch met at the Institute on Art and Civic Dialog at Harvard University in 1999. When Rauch began his job at OSF, he told Rauch what he really wanted to do was to adapt "Throne of Bloood" to the stage.

The project posed special challenges. Some of the movie's best moments are what Chong calls "purely filmic," such as the climactic scene in which Washizu is shot full of arrows. Chong realized he would have to come up with theatrical solutions.

There was also the issue of translating and adapting from culture to another. "Throne of Blood" was a reimagining of "Macbeth," and traditional Noh theater, by which Kurosawa was inspired, is very different from Elizabethan drama.

One thing that's not so different is that Washizu, like the murderous Scottish thane, is out of his intellectual depth in trying to cope with his wife, who is not only evil but much smarter than him.

Acebo says the play's design makes use of wood, stone and steel but is neither literal nor realistic.

"It feels Japanese, but it's abstracted," he says. "There's open space."

Kurosawa's sets weren't realistic either, Acebo points out.

He says that while some filmic techniques can't be duplicated on stage — for example, the final scene, in which Washizu is shot full of arrows — there are other things that can be done on stage and not in a movie.

"We can give a visual-auditory-spacial experience that's unique that does not happen in film," he says.

Acebo says the production makes extensive use of the projections designed by Ciarrocchi.

He says the projections enable the play to tell a pictorial story that comments on or deepens the main story while the main story is being enacted on the stage.

"It's not a movie," he says.

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