I’m sure it can sometimes be difficult to know when a work is done and ready to present to an audience, perhaps even more so if it sets its own precedent as a mix of elements heretofore unexplored. Sometimes a work has to be mounted and shown so that the audience can help guide its further refinement; that’s how I feel about Shadowbox Live’s The Tenshu, an ultimately unsatisfying and overlong excursion with flashes of wonder and innovation sprinkled throughout.
The Tenshu was written by Izumi Kyoka (as Tenshu Monogatari, originally produced in 1951), and it has been translated to English by Hiromi Sakamoto and further adapted by Jimmy Mak; it is the story of a spirit named Tomihime and a samurai named Zusho, how they meet and fall in love, and how their different worlds conspire to keep them apart. Executive producer Stev Guyer said in a speech before the performance that this was an attempt to bring an eastern work to a western audience, to adapt its story and setting to make it more palatable. He went on to describe the international collaboration between Shadowbox Live and a group of artists from Japan to make this hybrid, something he says is a conglomeration of kabuki, rock music, and performance art. Mr. Guyer set the stage for quite an ambitious work, and The Tenshu is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen before; it’s dripping with effort and self importance. This was my first experience attending a performance at Shadowbox Live, and I enjoyed myself overall (the food and drinks helped) even though the production itself left a lot to be desired.
The highlights of the show are a series of ballets choreographed by Katy Psenicka (my favorite being one where the dancers are representing birds), some truly odd but delightfully weird business with a severed head, the puppets (designed and constructed by Beth Kattelman, Lukas Tomasacci, Nikos Fyodor Rutowski, and Nikki Fagan – the best being a banshee-like creature), and Stacie Boord’s singing voice (so pure and sweet that she could sing the phone book and make it palatable). The costumes by Linda Mullen and make up by David Mack are striking and boldly colored as well, and the effort involved in their overall design is quite apparent.
The production is at its worst during most of the first act, which takes an excessive amount of time to set up characters that only feature minimally in the overall plot. The music by Light is fine and consistent (meaning it all sounds alike), but the material has been over musicalized with lyrics that don’t convey emotion or plot well at all. The opening scene and song involving the little girls of the castle “fishing for flowers” is nauseatingly saccharine and even unintentionally funny as the girls all look like the children of the damned with He-Man haircuts. The dialogue does little to help engage western audiences as so many concepts such as honor and love and death are merely told rather than expressed; characters don’t seem to have any deep emotions or feelings based on what they say or sing, and so it is difficult to care much what happens to them. The extensive plot summary and cast list in the program is daunting, so many parts assigned names and descriptions that prove to be unnecessary.
The Tenshu ultimately tries to be too many things all at once; it’s a love story, a sword and samurai adventure, a story of ghosts and the afterlife, an example of kabuki theatre, a rock opera, a ballet, a two-act musical with food and drinks, and a kid-friendly puppet show. It reminds me a bit of the hibachi restaurant around the corner that offers General Tso’s chicken alongside tater tots, pizza, and Oreos. There is potential in the material, but this is a piece that needs to be more clearly defined; it has the taste of something that has had too many cooks in the kitchen. With some judicial editing this could be quite a good hour-long diversion, but in its current incarnation it comes off as an indulgent work in progress.
** out of ****
**/ out of **** (with the food, drinks, and ambiance factored in)
The Tenshu continues through to October 25th at Shadowbox Live located at 503 South Front Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shadowboxlive.org/light/the-tenshu