Friday, September 9, 2011

"Rashomon" reviewed

Heather L. Smith / Aurora Sentinel

The Aurora Fox’s production of “Rashomon” shows just how tricky it can be to get a story straight.
Without getting too philosophical, it’s fair to say that truth doesn’t exist without perception, and that when it comes to human beings, perception is always steered by biases, backgrounds and contexts. That’s the central truism behind Fay and Michael Kanin’s murder mystery, a thriller that distills a single crime through the lenses of four separate narrators.
While true nature of the play’s central event may be hard to pin down, there’s no enigma about the quality of the Aurora Fox’s production for its 27th season debut. Director El Armstrong weaves different narrative strands together in a powerful and compelling way, and the medieval Japanese thriller comes to life on a lush set brilliantly mapped out by scenic designer Jen Orf. Combined with nuanced, revelatory performances by Fox veteran Jack Casperson and newcomers Seth Maisel and Enzo Sariñana, the show stands as one of the most creative and affecting season premieres at the Fox in recent memory.

Based on the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa and the 1950 film directed by Akira Kurosawa, the thriller set in 12th century Japan focuses on the murder of a samurai (Jude Moran) by a roving bandit (Sariñana), and the fate of the murdered man’s wife (Donna Hansen). Here’s the tricky part: We don’t witness the crime firsthand. Instead, we hear secondhand accounts of testimony given to the police, stories swapped among a woodcutter (Casperson), a monk (Peter Trinh) and a wigmaker (Seth Maisel), all of whom are taking shelter under the battered Rashomon gate during a rain storm.
While the different tellings offer widely varying versions of the crime, certain elements remain constant. The bandit accost the samurai and his bride on an isolated country road; the samurai’s wife is raped; the samurai dies on his own blade.
Apart from those facts, the details vary wildly, as we see the crime played out according to its witnesses. The wife is alternatingly complicit and defiant; the samurai is either vengeful or resigned; the bandit could be bloodthirsty or only seeking the depraved pleasure of a crime without human casualties.
The entire cast deftly handles these shifts in motivation and response. During a preview performance, Moran and Sariñana offered varied takes on their characters. While Hansen’s delivery started out a bit more fitful, she soon took on the inherent challenges of the play’s tricky narrative structure with acumen.
Some of the thriller’s most affecting moments came not in the recreation of the crime, but in the responses to its retelling. As the stalwart monk, Trinh makes a promising debut at the Fox, and Maisel’s characterization of the amoral, selfish wigmaker boasts moments of sliminess that makes the skin crawl. Some of the drama’s finest moments, however, come in Casperson’s delivery as the wigmaker. Playing an aged craftsman struggling to support his family, Casperson brings to bear his “six decades” of experience on the stage, offering a poignancy and animation that summons a school of acting that has become too rare. Shadow Theatre Creative Director Hugo Jon Sayles also appears briefly for a colorful turn as the deputy.
All of these versions of the story play out on a stage that’s been masterfully transformed. Orf’s stage design includes a convincingly dilapidated Rashomon gate, a formerly grand guard house whose physical deterioration hints at the erosion of societal mores. The recollections of the crime play out on a main stage covered with sand; the courtroom scenes gain weight with a series of beautifully designed tapestries. The effect of the set design, combined with some carefully crafted pieces by costume designer Linda Morken, is truly evocative.
Similarly, fight coordinator Geoffrey Kent adds another dimension of believability to the show with the choreography of its two central sword routines. The katana fights differ in mood and tone, a touch that aligns with the thriller’s theme of perception. Under different viewpoints, even the combat style evolves.
While last year’s season premiere of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” at the Fox boasted plenty of ambition, this year’s debut meets those high goals with a proper degree of subtlety and skill. It’s a success that could hint at a new direction and dimension for the Fox, a theater that’s carved out a niche with stories rooted in American culture and characters.
If this thriller set in the rural stretches of medieval Japan hints at new frontiers for the upcoming season, it should be a good year, indeed.

Three and a half stars out of four

"Rashomon" runs until Oct. 9 at the Aurora Fox, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Information: 303-739-1970 or

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