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Theatre Review: Shadowbox’s The Tenshu is an Ambitious Labor of Love

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Shadowbox’s The Tenshu is an Ambitious Labor of Love
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Disclosure: Columbus Underground is a Media Partner of this premier production of The Tenshu.

It’s obvious the minute you walk into Shadowbox Live’s theater that The Tenshu, their adaptation of the Japanese ghost story classic Tenshu Monogatari by Izumi Kyoka is going to be like nothing we’ve seen from them before. The scale of the set custom built for this, including high risers for the band in two halves at either end so they play facing each other, is eye-popping. Even if someone hasn’t seen anything here before, I find it hard to believe it wouldn’t be immediately apparent that the space is completely reconfigured. That shift sets the audience up with expectations that both are and aren’t lived up to in this production.

The Tenshu is a an inverse Upstairs, Downstairs comedy of manners about a multi-generational assortment of female ghosts living on the 5th floor of a castle (“tenshu” loosely translated means castle tower) clustered around Princess Tomi (a terrific Stacie Boord) and the venal, vulgar samurai who occupy the downstairs led by Lord Harima (a hilarious Jimmy Mak) during the Edo period. The first act feels disjointed, not only in its attempt at theatrical cross-cutting between the ghosts and the samurai but tonally. The scenes in the Tenshu are frequently beautiful. These sequences are full of fascinating images – teardrops to deceive flowers into thinking the dew has fallen and get them to open up so they can be plucked (killed) and offered to the guiding spirit of the house (a wooden lion whose presence dominates that part of the stage),  a bamboo raincoat stolen from a scarecrow, the long tongue of a demon woman desperate to lick the blood off a decapitated head. The samurai don’t have much to do in the first act, the relationships are delineated and there’s some marvelous old-school stage magic depicting a storm, but clearly they’re there for setup.

JT Walker III

Robbie Nance and JT Walker III in The Tenshu.

Many of my favorite sequences from the play are in the first half.  A lusty, bickering, drunk demon couple, Shunobanbo and Shitanga, played with marvelous affection and charm by David Whitehouse and Julie Klein are pitch perfect with comedic timing to be envied. The charm and simple joy of the ghosts fishing for flowers. Princess Tomi’s return and her song “Calling the Storm,” sung beautifully by Boord, which lines its anthemic nature with knotty dissonance and a willingness to eschew rhyme and keep the ear interested. And my favorite moment, when Princess Tomi and visiting Princess Kame (a charming Leah Haviland) have an unforced conversation about what they miss from the corporeal world while passing a ball of colored light between them.

In the second half, The Tenshu shifts into a love story between Tomi and a samurai, falconer Zusho (JT Walker III). These two have a terrific chemistry together and his bumbling subservience and good heart shining through helps echo the subtle commentary on class and sex from the rest of the piece. As befitting falling in love, this section has more songs including some gorgeous harmonies and a wonderfully weird abstracted funk seduction number with strong singing from Boord, Walker and Nikki Fagin. Fagin is the glue of the piece, providing grounding and pivot points and also handling even the clunkiest exposition with ease and charm. As the love is threatened by samurai attacks, the spectacle blooms like those flowers in the opening, also fed by tear drops. Bryan Kao as fight choreographer outdoes himself with these operatic, balletic, epic fight scenes. The second act is also the worse offender in the dialogue department – the lightness of the performances, acting and musical, is weighted down by too much saying exactly what people mean in a disjointed, literal way.

The use of dance in this is marvelous. Nature – including love – is cast as modern dance, choreographed by Katy Psenicka (also very good in her acting role as Kuzu) and executed beautifully by the dance corps of Amy Lay, Katie Crisafulli, and Nick Wilson. The other technical elements are also top notch. The lighting design by Aaron Pelzek and sound design of Scott Aldridge and Brian Rau do a lot of the work in making the audience believe ghosts can conjure lightning storms that waylay whole groups of samuai, that the dance we’re seeing is a falcon being seduced by a crane far above us in the sky. The makeup and other original art by David Mack is a striking twist on classic kabuki augmenting the dazzling costumes by Linda Mullin. The set design by Britton Mauk and video by Harold E. Chadwick III, Zach Tantarelli, and David Whitehouse also goes a long way to making everything feel three dimensional.

Stev Guyer’s direction does a great job keeping things moving and managing the sense of scope. It’s a tricky thing to balance the impression that there is a world outside this province while also reinforcing that for these characters, this is the sum of their world, and mostly The Tenshu strikes that balance. His compositions, in collaboration with band Light led by Kris Keith (La Charanga Tres) on flute, mine a vein of late ’70s/early ’80s prog rock I’ve never had much affinity for but they use dissonance in really interesting ways and there were a few songs I came out humming. 

The downfall of the piece comes in the script adaptation. Izumi Kyoka’s original is translated by academic Hiromi Sakamoto and adapted for Shadowbox by Jimmy Mak with consultation from NYU’s Dr. Nina Cornyetz. I in no way want to diminish the difficulty of adapting a story from another era, by and for another culture, to a completely different context. It’s incredibly hard work and everyone is to be commended for attempting it. That said, it frequently feels like there was such an effort to sand down the edges and excise or explain anything that would be remotely unpalatable to a Western audience that we end up with a lot of characters explaining in an artless way what the other characters should already know having existed in the same world before the action of the play starts. The acting frequently feels undercut by someone saying thirty seconds later what the audience already picked up on. It would have been a much, much stronger show if they preserved some mystery and trusted the audience to not jerk away from ambiguity – particularly in the deus ex machina-style finale which could have been beautifully weird and surprising like the opening sequence but instead feels like we’ve all signed up for a lecture.

The Tenshu is an awe-inspiring experiment born of pure ambition, sweat and love. It brings in spades the jaw-dropping razzle-dazzle, the old school theatre magic like nothing else this season. While it didn’t work for me as a play, I think this was a risk worth taking and provides an experience you’re not likely to get anywhere else anytime soon.

The Tenshu runs through October 25th with performances at 7:30pm Wednesday through Saturday and 7:00pm Sunday, and matinées Saturday at 2:30pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm. Abridged performances Friday at 1:00pm. For tickets and more info, please visit http://www.shadowboxlive.org/light/the-tenshu

Special Night: You’re invited to Columbus Underground Night at The Tenshu at Shadowbox Live, Thursday, October 15th. Join Media Sponsors, Columbus Underground, from 5:30-6:30P for Happy Hour in the Backstage Bistro (in Shadowbox Live’s lobby), including a complimentary snack spread, then proceed into the theater for The Tenshu, an original rock n roll musical.
Reservations required and subject to availability. Contact the Shadowbox Live Box Office at 614-416-7625 or reserve online at shadowboxlive.org. Mention promotional code TENCU50 (or enter it in the promotional code box when making reservations online,) and receive 50% off the regular ticket price for your entire party!

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