A visually striking and well-played rendition of multi-faceted Japanese crime drama at Chico State
“He lies like an eyewitness,” as the old Russian expression goes. Cynthia Lammel, director of the Chico State Department of Theatre’s current production of Rashomon, thought the line captured the essence of the play’s message so well that she featured it prominently in the program notes.
Through numerous intriguing plot twists and turns, Rashomon delves into the essential nature of human beings—their tendency to lie or alter the truth depending on selfish motives or perhaps just due to the possession of an active imagination or poor memory. Not one character in this story of the death of a samurai warrior (played by Peter McNelis) and the rape of his wife (Erin Duffey)—from the woodcutter (Xander Ritchey) to the medium channeling the dead husband (Leanne Convis) to the wife herself—gives the same account of what happened when asked to testify in court.
Chico State senior Ryan F. Mutti is fabulous as Tajomaru, the play’s infamous bandit (played memorably in the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film version by Japanese star Toshiro Mifune). Mutti’s multi-layered portrayal of the bandit is an effective mixture of fear-inspiring swagger, vulnerability, ego and charm. The interaction between Mutti and Duffey is likewise multi-faceted: The scene in which they linger a very long time in a sort of wince-inspiring embrace is especially poignant and thought-provoking.
Daniel Beldi as the wigmaker is particularly entertaining; his hard-boiled observations of the world around him, delivered in a salty, endearing manner, occasionally serve as a bit of comic relief of sorts. Hugo Kelley plays the priest who tries to make sense of the conflicting stories about the crime. (In preparation for the part, Kelley shaved his head, ate healthful food and meditated daily.)
Convis as the medium is suitably eye- (and ear-) catching, thanks in part to the excellent work of the play’s costume-design team, including designer Ruth Palmerlee, who was in the audience for the dress rehearsal this writer attended. Palmerlee used authentic old-kimono material that she ordered from Japan to make the female actors’ striking attire.
The production’s unchanging, minimalist set is cleverly crafted. Its organic feel and stylized version of a crumbling Rashomon Gate are noteworthy. The set’s flexibility provided a range of scenes depending on what’s being called for at the moment: evoking the feeling of being deep in the forest, under the overhang of the gate or in the glare of courtroom lights. It also lent itself perfectly to the play’s numerous flashbacks (and flash-forwards) without confusing the viewer. On the contrary, one is helped to sort out the complexities of the story with the help of the carefully planned stage set. “Aha,” we get used to saying to ourselves when the actors appear stage left, “now we are in the courtroom. What story are we going to hear this time?”
While Chico State’s version of the play is based on the 1959 Broadway adaptation of the film Rashomon, which in turn is adapted from two Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories that are based on folktales of feudal Japan, play-goers may be more familiar with Kurosawa’s masterful black-and-white film. Kurosawa fans will not be disappointed. The play resembles his film significantly, from the dreary sound of pouring rain that serves as a backdrop for the telling of conflicting tales, to the nuanced portrayal of the characters, to the basic overall flow of the complex, fascinating story line.
Samurai fans will likewise appreciate the work of sword choreographer Maxwell Pickens, who holds a black belt in taekwondo, jujitsu and kenpo karate. Pickens deserves to be commended for the effectiveness of the fight scenes between Mutti and McNelis. His choreography even takes the duo through slo-mo moves in one fight, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—impressively slick for something that is not a film.