through July 10
Mad Cow Theatre, Stage Right
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
"The truth is rarely pure, and never simple." – Oscar Wilde
How sure can we be of the truth when all we have are the memories of those who experienced an event? How much of what is remembered actually occurred and how much of it is forever altered by the filters of subjectivity, self-interest, emotion and self-preservation? These are the questions explored in Rashomon, a play written by Fay and Michael Kanin and based (like Akira Kurosawa's revered 1950 film) on the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, currently being staged at Mad Cow Theatre.
The plot is one of rape and murder, as the wife of a samurai is taken against her will and the samurai killed (or was he?) by an infamous bandit. What seems at first glance to be a straightforward, if violent, tale of being in the wrong place at the wrong time becomes much more complicated as we see the events re-enacted four separate times based on the disparate recollections of four eyewitnesses, including one communicating from beyond the mortal coil.
The play opens with a Priest (Viet Nguyen), who has decided to give up his calling and leave the town he inhabits, so disgusted is he with the events that have transpired and the human spectacle he has witnessed in the local court. Imploring him to reconsider is a Woodcutter (Terrence Yip). They are soon joined by a Wigmaker (Tommy Keesling) who, despite a base and sometimes cruel outward presentation, may actually be the character with the clearest moral code and commitment to his truth. As the Wigmaker cajoles the story of what has occurred from the other two, we are transported to the four aforementioned retellings of events, from the perspectives of the Bandit, the Wife, the dead Samurai (through a medium) and the Woodcutter himself.
The show features several strong performances. Local actor Roger Floyd, as the Bandit, is a force of nature to behold. Equal parts raging fury and enraptured lover in some of the retellings, he moves the audience to disgust and laughter with his self-importance, brutality and cowardice in other versions of the story. Nguyen, as the Priest, is wonderfully understated in his portrayal of the inner conflict between what he wishes man to be and the reality of human behavior displayed in front of him. His eyes project his anguish, his broken spirit and his awakening realization of what makes man worthy of hope. As the Wigmaker, Keesling inhabits a role that could easily descend into a caricature of one-liners, insults and worse; his skillful characterization turns the brute into a three-dimensional person. The Wigmaker has seen humanity's worst and made choices for survival that must be respected, if not applauded – the perfect counterbalance to the Priest.
Director Michael Marinaccio does a commendable job of squeezing every last bit of drama and comedic substance from a setup that could easily become tedious in its repetitive nature, especially given the fact that the "Rashomon effect" – telling a story from multiple points of view – has now become a standard narrative device in modern culture. Equally impressive is his ability to blend acting styles that run the full gamut.
What is the truth? In Mad Cow's Rashomon, that question will linger long after you have left the theater.