Shadowbox Live takes on its largest production yet with "The Tenshu"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Shadowbox Live's "The Tenshu" is an epic, East-meets-West rock musical that is a century in the making. Or maybe 20 years in the making. Or maybe two to three years and a team of committed creatives from around the globe.

"The Tenshu" is the most risky, most aggressive, most collaborative and most massive production the company, known for both producing sketch comedy-and-rock 'n' roll shows and rock musicals, has ever produced.

"We literally disassembled the entire interior of the theatre," executive producer/CEO Stev Guyer said. "We completely stripped the stage, took down lights and most of the audio system. The set is gigantic."

"The Tenshu" takes place at Himeji Castle in Japan. It is a story of love between a beautiful, powerful spirit and a Samurai falconer. Magic and the supernatural, themes of honor and loyalty, conflict and the pursuit of happiness are dominant themes.

Guyer first met Japanese choreographer/director Hiromi Sakamoto in 1995, at which time they began discussing creating a new work based on Sakamoto's update of a century-old work by renowned Japanese Kabuki playwright and author Kyoka Izumi. Shows on that scale require funding, and it proved difficult to come by, so, with regret, Guyer shelved the project.

The two lost touch until a few years ago, when Guyer found Sakamoto on Facebook.

"Our reputation has evolved over the 20 years, and we had found some people willing to help us fund the project," Guyer said.

The trek from updated Kabuki piece to full-scale Western rock musical was not a simple one.

"There are a lot of moving pieces," Guyer joked.

"We could have done it stripped down. It's a modern Kabuki story, so we could have done it in a more traditionally Japanese style. But our intent was to stage a Western-style musical, so we had to give it scale. We blew it up."

The piece was translated twice from Japanese to English, at which time Shadowbox writer Jimmy Mak began the task of adapting the language and style to fit the desired scope.

"The script I was given had lots of monologue but little action," Mak said. "The language was beautiful and formal but the presentation and meaning were confusing. I didn't want to lose that Japanese quality, but we had to create some scenes, add some action and put the rock music in."

Because Kabuki features lengthy monologues and narration delivered by static actors, scenes were added to present characters who were only referenced in the original script ("American audiences like to see their bad guys," Mak explained) and where in the original there were lengthy descriptions of action, Shadowbox replaced them with, well, action.

"It's definitely not Kabuki. We like to think of it as live anime," Shadowbox director of media relations Nikki Fagin said.

In addition to financial support from, among others, PNC Arts Alive, the National Endowment for the Arts, Honda and Greater Columbus Arts Council, Guyer enlisted production help from several outside sources.

Pittsburgh-based designer Britton Mauk worked on set design, and CATCO's scene shop handled construction. Beth Kattleman from Ohio State University's Department of Theatre worked with Shadowboxers to design and build giant puppets for the show. Martial artists Sen Gao and Bryan Kao choreographed combat scenes. The make-up design was done by New York Times Best Selling author of the "Kabuki" novels David Mack.

Additionally, Shadowbox house band Lights spent two years writing the music.

"There is romance, comedy, horror, action - lots of martial arts," Mak said.

"It's just an unreal spectacle," Guyer said.

Guyer said a goal of the production is to promote cultural understanding. "The Tenshu" is rooted in traditional Japanese art and culture, first updated then set within a modern, Western art form. The support of Honda and the Japan-America Society of Central Ohio has helped facilitate this cross-cultural effort.

The Columbus Branch of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana has created an indoor garden in Shadowbox' Backstage Bistro. Family Days (held Saturdays, Oct. 10, 17 and 24) will feature anime short films presented by the Gateway Film Center and Sushi 101, a hands-on sushi-making workshop presented by Fusian.

Shadowbox has also abridged "The Tenshu" into a 45-minute version to be presented during its Friday afternoon Lunchbox program.

"In my fantasy, Kyoka Izumi is happy with what we've done," Guyer said.

Shadowbox Live

Wednesdays through Sundays, through Oct. 25

503 S. Front St., Brewery District