People are often cowardly, selfish, lazy and unscrupulous. So says “Rashomon,” a play based on the Japanese stories of Ryunsuke Akutagawa being performed at BYU through June 2.
Fortunately, there’s also a chance to redeem ourselves from those weaknesses, if we choose to take it. That’s the more heartening message that comes at the end of a very intriguing production.
A priest (Jesse Ryan Harward), horrified at the cruelty and dishonesty of his decaying society, has left town to meditate in the woods. He and a woodcutter (Doug Stewart) encounter a wigmaker (Hiroko Ogasahara Hatch) and tell her what happened the day before.
This much is known: The region’s most diabolical outlaw, Tajomaru (Dax Y. Craven), tied up a samurai (Seth Estrada) and raped his wife (Shelley Graham). Later, the husband was found dead with both the wife and the villain gone.
What is up in the air is who killed the samurai. Tajomaru is the obvious culprit, and he accepts the blame. But the wife claims she killed her husband when he looked at her contemptuously after she was raped. The husband himself, speaking through a medium (Yumi Himeno and Amy Jensen), says from beyond the grave that he killed himself when his wife indicated a desire to run off with Tajomaru and leave him behind.
Each of the stories is shown to us, with no clear answer which, if any, is accurate. The woodcutter has yet a fourth version of things that seems to contain the most truth, but that is also absurdly, weirdly comical.
This is not a case of people seeing the same events differently. The actual occurrences are different in each story, which means at least three of the four tellers are lying.
Dax Craven, aside from having a cool name, also has a great sinister voice that suits the abominably evil Tajomaru very well. Shelley Graham adjusts to the various ways her character is presented (innocent, pious, conniving) and plays each of them convincingly. Hiroko Hatch provides comic relief as the cynical wigmaker.
Director Rodger Sorensen made a bold, unusual choice for the show: Each character is shadowed by someone performing the part in American Sign Language. The idea was that since the production was blending Western and Japanese cultures already, he wanted to mix deaf culture in, too.
Then he made another brave decision: The signers aren’t non-participating “invisible” counterparts; they actually interact with the speakers. Imagine a character in a foreign-language film having a conversation with the subtitles, and that’s the jarring juxtaposition that happens here.
By all accounts, Sorensen’s decision to do all this was not a case of being different just for the sake of being different, but was a sincere foray into theatrical experimentation. Such an unusual set of choices is fraught with peril, and frankly, I think it fails in this show more often than it works. The signers tend to be distracting, and their interaction with the characters kept bringing me out of the action and reminding me I was watching a play.
However — and fittingly, given the subject matter — other viewers’ reactions may be entirely different. It depends on one’s tolerance for unusual theater experiments and perhaps whether one is easily distracted.
Even with the potential drawback of the sign language, the show is successful. It is not ponderous or pretentious, thus avoiding a pitfall common to high-minded plays like this one. The glimpses into Japanese culture and art are beguiling, the acting is earnest, and “Rashomon” is thought-provoking.