Experts in criminal matters will tell you that the least reliable source of information is the eyewitness account of a crime, or even the narratives of those who took part. The point was not lost on volcanic Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, whose 1950 Rashomon depicted a murder viewed from disparate angles, yielding wildly divergent truths that revealed reality to be a stew of ambiguous ingredients.
Now Green T Productions offers up Tales of Rashomon (just in time for the holidays), a piece that draws heavily on traditional Japanese theater forms to drive home the very same unsettling, and oddly invigorating, point: that motive, experience, and the raw stuff of life's stories are shifting, unsettled, and open to continuous reinterpretation.
The action (based on two stories by writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, with Kathy Welch adapting and directing) takes place in Kyoto during the 12th century. As we're told in a free-form opening sequence, the shit has hit the fan: Earthquakes, fires, and disease are the order of the day. What once was a majestic gate to the city is now a ruin populated by the desperate and displaced, and folks are in such dire straits that bodies are being left uncovered in the structure's upper reaches.
TALES OF RASHOMON
Green T Productions
at Mixed Blood Theatre through January 3612.338.6131
From here emerges a wraith-like Beggar Woman (Natalie Rae Wass) and a wandering Servant (Timothy Daly), done up in rags and grime, staring hollow-eyed into a future of mourning and loss. There's nothing to be done, and Wass's character has taken up an entrepreneurial sideline in stealing hair from corpses to sell to a wig maker. Little wonder, then, that both are willing to sit down to entertain themselves with scrolls left over from various criminal interrogations.
The tone of the piece is assured and wrenching, with Welch's direction leading an ensemble cast through a ghostly reality and frequent dips into stylized Japanese movement. It is difficult to take one's eyes off Wass, who winces, chortles, cajoles, and rasps through an energetic and magnetic performance that is nothing short of jarringly weird. Daly anchors things as a one-time dignified domestic turned reader of unfortunate tales.
We move into the murder story. A samurai (Ethan Xiong) and his wife (Rebecca Cho) are strolling through the countryside when they encounter a bandit (David P. Schneider). What follows is anyone's guess, but in four consecutive alternate tellings the outlines become clear: The bandit takes the samurai's wife sexually, and the samurai ends up dead. The particulars become increasingly blurred, and the characters assume all sorts of squishy angles along the way.
The performers are given all sorts of room to shatter the notion of straightforward reality. Schneider is hilariously cocky and headstrong in one scene, a whimpering mess in the next. Cho in one version is all virtue righteously wronged, in another she performs an exquisitely ambiguous traditional dance, and in another she engages in full-on combat. All seem true, none seem true.
So whoever said there were two sides to every story, it seems, was a tiresome literalist. Tales of Rashomon, in one act without an intermission, depicts the fractal fracturing of what we choose to believe is true and, niftily enough, does so with notes of Japanese tradition that jar American senses sufficiently for the message to feel universal.
By the end, when the ensemble (including an ethereal five-member chorus that eerily prods the narrative along) breaks into a litany of testimony about the dirty deeds in question, it is with a legitimate sense of poetry. Amid the ruins, the death, the perfidy, there is a slippery elegance: Truth is difficult, ephemeral, and chimerical. Which is why its contemplation is a particularly pure, if drastic and harsh, form of beauty.