Shadowbox Live’s Fun, Fast ‘Circle of Blood’
Shadowbox unveiled Circle of Blood this month. Jimmy Mak, writer, and Julie Klein, director, adapted this new original from David Mack’s graphic novel, Kabuki: Circle of Blood.
Circle of Blood is set in a near-future Japan. Japan labors under a brand of martial law, ruled by The General (Tom Cardinal) and a board of directors. The story follows The General’s daughter, Kabuki (Amy Lay), first among equals in a series of assassins working for the secret police named The Noh. Kabuki was scarred and her mother killed by The General’s son Kai (JT Walker) who returns from exile to disrupt the economy and take over the underworld.
A pastiche of ’90s action movies, Circle of Blood has a plot anyone can see coming from a mile away but the pleasures of that kind of story aren’t in surprise or depth. The pleasures come in the joy of execution and Shadowbox excels here. At a tight 90 minutes (with intermission), this play strips away some of the excess that can make their work feel bloated, leaving a series of dazzling, quick-hit fireworks.
The score, written and performed by Light (Matt Hahn on guitars, Steve Guyer and Kevin Patrick Sweeney on keys, Brandon Smith on drums) is also leaner and more in-on-the-fun than the last few originals of theirs I’ve seen. Chunky wah-guitar and hi-hat skitter over keyboard bass and washes of sound. The choice to deploy vocals, by Summit J. Starr, on only a handful of tunes as Kabuki’s internal monologue, also pays off here.
Klein’s pacing here is masterful. She knows when to pull back and when to lean on the throttle. The minimal set is a blank canvas Linda Mullin and Nick Wilson’s on-point costumes and Zach Tarantelli and David Whitehouse’s video work. The video work uses actual panels from Mack’s comic books and does wonders to keep the play moving, drawing the audience’s eyes across the stage and using subtle animation to wonderfully unsubtle effect.
Video allows the violence to punch without using expected stage blood. The one, minor downside of all that well-executed video is I wanted more of Katy Psenicka’s choreography. There were a few moments when I felt robbed of some of the best fight choreography in town as the action transitioned to video just as it was heating up.
Tom Cardinal gets real pathos out of The General. He implies the grandeur and danger the character was once capable of and clearly draw the long and slow decline into a man wracked by indecision, accustomed to being deceived and manipulated.
I would have liked a little more of the quirky gang of assassins around Kabuki and Kai’s all-stereotypes rogue’s gallery. Whenever those groups appear, some more on-the-nose levity infused the situation. But that’s a minor complaint because everything here is Amy Lay (also art director) and JT Walker’s show. They understand the campy nature of the material but without ever making fun of it or going too broad. Lay has internalized the sexy assassin type and puts an intoxicating spin on it. She owns her body and knows how little that kind of character would force any gestures. She plays Kabuki with a glint in her eye, gleeful, laughing through the pain.
Watching Lay interact with Walker’s darker, more savage take on that kind of grinning death merchant is delightful. They hint at the shared bonds as half-siblings and their mutual upbringing without selling that too hard. There’s real joy in watching these two swaggering, guarded personalities lock swords.
If you have any kind of fondness for old direct-to-video action movies or comics from the early infusion of manga into the U.S., do yourself a favor and see Circle of Blood.
Circle of Blood runs through November 5 with performances on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Enjoy $10 off tickets with code UNDERGROUND. For tickets and more info, visit shadowboxlive.org