When international theater comes to New York, it can offer a window into performance scenes from other countries and cultures. Genres and styles of storytelling can vary so greatly. It’s healthy to break up seeing a lot of American work with ideas and images from somewhere else.
Then sometimes there is a man dressed as a giant fish flopping around on stage. No matter the culture or intention that is universally funny.
In the Japanese production, Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth, by Kaimaku Pennant Race, Banquo’s ghost is a giant koi who attempts to get his revenge on the king of Scotland (and also king of the boxing ring), Macbeth.
Riffing on a famous Japanese boxing manga (Ashita no Joe) from the 1960’s, with a boxing ring as the primary set, this company, who favors the nonsensical and absurd, squeezes the rise and fall of the Scottish king into this pugilism scenario.
The boxing mat, replete with witches cackles, comes to life. With eerie faces emerging from the fabric (one of the best low-fi effects with effective punch) it speaks the prophecy to Macbeth who sees a boxing championship within his grasp.
Lady Macbeth has some tips for how he can push himself to win that prize belt. Maybe murder is simply the way they “spice things up” in their marriage, one character suggests. Couples need shared interests and bloodshed might just be one, another ponders. This company intends to make humor from these bits of Shakespeare put through a conceptual wringer. It succeeds in parts. The massive koi helps. But it was not quite as over the top or laugh-out-loud as its description might suggest.
The remarkable thing about the production is that even though it means to be humorous (and gets its occasional laughs), it makes a strong case for a serious Golden Boy-style Macbeth. The story does not have to strain too far to accommodate a boxing setting–rivalry, brute strength, men in competition, superstition, bloodshed, ambition, and violence. In fact, Lady Macbeth’s final speech contemplating what she has wrought is quite tender and beautifully written by playwright and director Yu Murai. She talks about seeing the fuse inside Macbeth which he didn’t even know was there. The production is more interested in the love and respect in their relationship than a typical Shakespeare production with all its stabby stabby, unsex me here, daggers in the windmills of my mind bits. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about their love and relational dynamic beyond ambition.
Kaimaku Pennant Race favors physicality and movement. The actors (Takuro Takasaki, G.K. Masayuki, Kazuma Takeo) are clad in white bodysuits playing a variety of human and non-human roles. The three male actors portray male and female roles.
In one sequence calling each other Woolf and Bulldozer (the reference was lost on me) they move like Rock’em Sock’em robots–boxers of a different kind. A slower ponderous scene with an extended loop of a projected koi pond confused me. Were they the fish talking, were they talking to the fish? Maybe I missed the explanatory projection.
One of the challenges of international theater with supertitles is taking notes and missing what was said. It’s hard to sit back and just absorb the action when you are trying to follow the narrative–albeit a familiar but repurposed one. It can also be frustrating if the show is text heavy (as this was). You can end up reading more than viewing. Here there were even Japanese language puns they were trying to pull off.
At one point, they pre-explain a parodic moment they are taking from the manga. Even with the explication I wasn’t sure what was happening. But definitely watch for falling pebbles in the front row.
Nevertheless, for all the unexpected elements the Macbeth story is clear even if the boxing metaphor drifts in and out of dramaturgical focus. Tracking the open-ended manga, in the end this Macbeth contemplates his own failure and shame. He has to live in contemplation of the blood on his hands making it certainly a very believable boxing tale.