Expect to leave the theater feeling a bit unsettled.
UW theater professor David Furumoto says his first exposure to traditional kabuki changed his life. It was the late 1970s, and he was a teenager growing up in Hawaii. One day, his mother insisted that he drive her to a performance -- and stay to see it. He had no idea what he was getting into.
"I was just amazed by the 'big-ness' of the acting, the vitality of this style of theater," he says. "I came home being able to recite whole passages of the play."
Several years later, while pursuing a marine biology degree at the University of Hawaii, Furumoto saw an audition notice for a kabuki play. Cast in a role, he was so transformed by the experience that he changed his major, eventually earning an MFA with an emphasis on Asian theater. He also studied at the National Theater of Japan with master kabuki teacher Matagoro Nakamura. Now he's directing University Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Richard III, which opens at UW Vilas Hall this Friday, April 18.
While Furumoto's first exposure to kabuki was illuminating, his first experience with Shakespeare was not.
"I was so excited by [reading] the text, but when I saw my first production, done with a modern, realistic approach to the acting, I was disappointed," he says. "I didn't feel like the characters were really coming to life."
Furumoto began contemplating how to infuse canonical western texts with the heightened emotion produced by certain eastern theater techniques. His MFA thesis project was a production of Shakespeare's Richard III that included many kabuki elements. Four decades later, Furumoto is exploring different intersections of eastern and western cultures through the same play. The new production focuses on one of the Bard's most notorious villains.
Furumoto wants audiences to experience Shakespeare in a highly theatrical way that highlights eastern theater conventions. During particularly important moments, actors will strike a statue-like pose called a mie and use stylized vocals to underscore the emotion of the scene. Traditional kabuki makeup will show each character's essence: blue for evil, red for good. And the production will employ a hanamichi, a walkway that extends into the audience, allowing characters to make dramatic entrances and exits.
Even if the actors never do a kabuki-inspired production again, Furumoto wants them to be able to perform a large style in a believable way.
"In kabuki the movements, voice and costumes may be over the top, but the honesty of the characters is still there," he notes.
Comparing the style to Italian commedia dell'arte, he says that by working within kabuki's strictly prescribed physical constraints, student actors can truly focus on the internal lives of their characters.
The two-hour production presents many physical wonders, though. Selected scenes will be interpreted through dance, and with the help of UW alum Jason Schumacher, some actors will fly using a technique called chunori.
But the play's ending may be the biggest surprise for western viewers. In traditional Asian narratives, evil is never fully destroyed, so expect to leave the theater feeling a bit unsettled.