BY DANNY GONZALEZ
On the evenings of April 24 to 26, Shakespearean fans will be treated to a stylized retelling of “Macbeth,” one which blends American and Japanese play-acting. From Thursday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., County College of Morris’ Dragonetti auditorium will be transformed into a kabuki theater replica, complete with hanamichi, or “flower way,” and a walkway that runs from the audience aisle to the stage. The CCM actors will also be armed with swords and garbed in brilliant colored costumes, oni masks and the fearsome white makeup of the enduring Japanese art form.
Kabuki and noh are one of the oldest forms of theatre in the world, dating back to the 17th Century, according to Dr. Robert Cioffi, the established director of the CCM drama program and of the play. Mixing the intimacy of Western style with the centuries-old practices of Eastern, Cioffi pitched the idea in the month of September, according to Claire Bochenek, a three-year alumni playing Lady Makubesu. Auditions were held in January and the play has rehearsed every Monday and Wednesday leading up to the show since.
“Our production is Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ as if a kabuki or noh theater company were doing it,” Cioffi said. “It’s been done before, it sounds more unusual than it really is, but the reason I’m doing it, it’s a tribute really to a Japanese film called ‘Throne of Blood.’ It’s a famous Japanese movie, which is a version of Macbeth. [Film director Akira Kurosawa] changes all the names and cuts out plot devices.”
Kabuki and noh theatres are akin to a movie because of the constant flow and instant change of scenery, as explained by Cioffi. The performance involves minimal amounts of movement and kneeling, and is exact in nature in regards to the angles of the back, arms and feet as well as the awareness to always be visible to the audience during dialogue. Lines are addressed to the crowd and not one another, and the closest a character is to the front, the more important they are in that scene.
When actors move on stage they move with exaggerated motions in a rhythmic fashion to the soundtrack of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” according to Cioffi. The music incorporates only two or three instruments such as the hyoshigi, tszumi and fue, wooden clappers, hourglass-shaped drums and bamboo flutes, respectively.
“It’s weird doing something so foreign when [the Japanese’s] whole culture is designed on this ritual,” said Devin Carwithen, a six-year alumni who plays Makudufu. “It really is amazing how much effort and energy and you know, the right amount of flexibility that goes into something as simple as bowing.”
Despite being held back by delays in snowstorms and power outages, the rehearsals have been moving along steadily. The cast has had to do more independent research than they are normally accustomed to, but the experience has had a positive impact on the students and the alumni. Seeing their hard work and effort come together and performing it on the stage as one ensemble of different personalities has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the play, according to cast members.
“[Cioffi] is probably one of the most knowledgeable directors, definitely in this area,” Bochenek said. “He’s able to use all of his knowledge toward all of the other shows he’s studied, shows he’s done and actually combine elements of it so that way we have a drama that has dance in it, that has music in it, yet it’s still a drama, it’s not a musical, that is extremely entertaining. You learn things without intending to.”
The plays at CCM are open to all who wish to audition. By blending in veterans with beginners, Shakespeare and Eastern tradition, CCM, Cioffi and the drama staff have fostered a unique program that keeps graduates coming back.
“We do things different here, it’s not the same five plays that every other theater does,” said TJ Reissner, an eight-year alumnus and the play’s titular Makubesu. “We do things like ‘Journey to the West’ and ‘The Almost True and Truly Remarkable Adventure of Israel Potter, an American Patriot.’ Plays that no one has heard of and are unique and interesting.”
Just don’t mention the name of “that Scottish play” when acting in a different one. Though not superstitious, Cioffi said he hates to break tradition.