Stylish mayhem dominates Shadowbox take on graphic novel

Kai (JT Walker III, left) prepares to do battle with Kabuki (Amy Lay) in a scene from Circle of Blood. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

If you want to enjoy Circle of Blood, be sure to read the printed synopsis beforehand. That will make it easier to navigate your way around its bizarre vision of Japan in the year 2057. It also will help you figure out an elaborate back story that’s explained only in occasional flashbacks and snatches of dialogue.

The good news is that the lack of explanation means director Julie Klein and her cast and crew are free to focus on the production’s true mission: entertaining us with scenes of menace and stylized mayhem cleverly combined with images from the graphic novel on which the tale is based.

The story, borrowed from David Mack’s Kabuki, centers on the young assassin of the same name (Amy Lay). Though she was raised by a now-broken man called the General (Tom Cardinal), her actual father is Kai (JT Walker III), a crime lord whose long-ago attack left her mother blind and impregnated. As if that weren’t bad enough, Kai returned years later, after Kabuki’s mother died giving birth to her, and disfigured his adolescent daughter on her mother’s grave.

The action begins several years after that, when Kabuki is a young woman pondering what to get Kai for Father’s Day. Just kidding! She’s now a hitwoman working for the Noh, a government body attempting to prevent criminal gangs from taking over the country. She’s also the star of a TV newscast that offers cryptic warnings to evildoers.

All that changes when Kai returns to Japan and begins threatening the order the Noh has worked so hard to establish.

Shadowbox Live’s last foray into Japanese-inspired storytelling was 2015’s The Tenshu, an elaborate production marred by a scattershot story and a leaden pace (though I’ve been told the tempo was speeded up in later performances). While not quite as elaborate, Circle of Blood is far more watchable thanks to Jimmy Mak’s spare script and a brisk pace that wraps things up in less than 90 minutes. The show is not exactly deep and it’s hardly uplifting—the body count rivals that of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies—but it efficiently moves us along from one set piece to the next.

All of the characters are deftly portrayed, from Lay’s methodically lethal Kabuki to Cardinal’s morose General, Walker’s evil Kai and a raft of eccentric henchmen. But the biggest attraction is the nifty interplay between the live action and images from the graphic novel, which are displayed on five large video screens. An additional boon is the accompanying music, composed and performed by Matt Hahn, Stev Guyer, Kevin Patrick Sweeney and Brandon Smith. Occasional vocals are beautifully supplied by Summit J. Starr.

Circle of Blood may favor style over substance, but the style is something to behold.

Circle of Blood runs through Nov. 5 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. most Wednesdays-Thursdays (beginning Oct. 11). Running time: about 1 hour, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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You say kabuki, I say ka-pokey…

Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)
Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.

The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.

With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.

What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.

Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.

Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.

But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.

Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.

Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.

Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.

Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.

Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.

Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).

The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.

The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.

The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.