MURDERER'S ROW

Reinventing Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon has become something of an American pastime. The movie was a huge international hit, a brilliantly acted, visionary retelling of two Ryunsuke Autagawa stories. It was first remade in America in 1964 as The Outrage, a pretentious but still engaging version of the story set in the Old West. And it's useful to revisit the film versions, especially Kurosawa's, if only to appreciate the difficulty in translating the intricate story to the stage.

The Industrial Arts Theatre has done just that, taking the classic Japanese story and setting it in a desolate American future. Rashomon nicely survives the translation, both to English and to a new time zone, because of its universal themes: the human need to know the truth and the equally human propensity to bend the facts to one's own advantage. Complex and difficult to pull off, the play succeeds despite certain logistical problems.

Kurosawa's core story has lost none of its appeal. A husband and his wife traveling in the forest meet Tajomaru, an infamous bandit who ties up the husband and then rapes the wife. But then the husband dies, stabbed to death. Each of the characters (including the husband's ghost) tells a different version of the murder in court. The husband claims to have committed suicide, and both the bandit and the wife say they killed him. In the telling, each of them manages to make the other two look bad.

Who is telling the truth? As it turns out, there is a fourth version of the story--a forester has witnessed the whole thing. And while he would not come forward in court, he tells his version to an old priest and a vagabond he meets at the Rashomon Gate. His story seems to be closest to the truth.

But even his account appears to be skewed. The forester's narrative explains why each of the others would claim to have done the killing, but it does not explain his own reluctance to come forward in court. It's left to the cynical vagabond to discern the forester's motives.

Rashomon is about the relativity of truth--how people either deliberately or self-deceptively remember events to suit their own needs. Given that tendency, how can we ever know the truth about any human event? Both the great Kurosawa and Industrial Arts director Deborah Voss find hope in the ordinary decency of flawed individuals.

Voss places the story in a grotesque, postapocalyptic future where bandits roam the woods and a medieval code of ethics is reborn. For the most part, the approach works very well, though all the talk of honor seems out of place. The story is powerful enough to drive itself like a tank over minor plot holes created by the leap ahead in time.

It's not as easy, however, for Voss to move gracefully from the first Autagawa story to the second. When the dead man gets up over and over again and takes his position bound to a tree, the audience may well fail to suspend disbelief. Part of the problem with the staging is the space itself--too intimate for full-scale lighting tricks that might disguise the transitions.

Phillip A. Luna is marvelous as the bandit Tajomaru, and his varied characterizations (in each of the four versions) are complex, amusing and completely involving. Mary Guzzy-Siegel as the cackling old vagabond has a few notable moments of insidious cynicism, though her viciousness sometimes seems forced. Eric Weber as the forester and Stephen Sealy as the priest bring quiet dignity and humanity to their respective roles; Weber in particular creates an aura of genuine kindness about him. Kelly Mackley fumes admirably as the husband, but in the end seems too stiff. Susan Ross as the wife doesn't handle fragility and innocence well; she's at her best in the last two versions of the story--a nasty brat in both.

Rashomon brings the Industrial Arts season to a worthy conclusion. Though uneven, the production grips the imagination, and the stretching of conceptual boundaries breeds ideas. In the end, the audience is reminded of the timelessness of Kurosawa's tale and left with something rich and strange to gnaw on overnight.

 
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