NEW YORK — When the cast of the Acting Company's production of "Kabuki Macbeth" takes the stage at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall Saturday , it won't take long for the audience to see that Shozo Sato, the director, and Karen Sunde, the playwright, have taken a few liberties with Shakespeare's tragedy.
For starters, the title character has been transformed from a Scottish general who would be king into a Japanese samurai who's shooting for Shogun. As if that weren't enough, the Zen concepts of enlightenment and karma have found their ways into the drama, as have the colorful costumes, bold makeup and wildly modulating chanting associated with Kabuki theater.
What won't be as easy for the public to see, however, are the sea changes the actors have had to undergo in order to bring the production to the stage--changes that have required them not only to shift their cultural perspective but also to essentially "unlearn" many of their acting instincts.
"This definitely has been one of the most difficult rehearsal processes I've been through," said Jennifer McCray, the company's staff repertory director.
Part of the reason, she said, is that while theater in the West strives to imitate life, Kabuki eschews realism in favor of a highly stylized, melodramatic, larger-than-life depiction of character and emotion. For the performers to make the transition from one world to the other, then, it was often necessary for them to override their stage training and indulge in acting styles they had most certainly been advised against throughout their careers.
"To a Western point of view, it's actually bad acting," said Mark Kincaid, who plays Macduff. "When you watch Kabuki theater, they make a meal out of everything. Someone crying on stage takes 20 minutes."
But having directed American actors in previous Kabuki interpretations of "Medea," "Faust" and "Othello," Sato, a native of Japan who trained at Tokyo's Toho Academy of the Performing Arts and studied with a 17th-generation Kabuki master, was able to anticipate the difficulties the actors would face. To ease the acting company's entry into the world of Kabuki, Sato had his assistant, Todd Little, spend the two weeks before rehearsal running through the basic Kabuki dance steps with the 14 actors and familiarizing them with what he described as the Kabuki technique of "using the body to speak instead of the voice."
That technique, Little said, isn't always an easy one for an American actor to learn: "There are many times in the play when words aren't being spoken. That can be very disconcerting because if someone's not saying something on stage that normally means someone has dropped their cues."
When Sato himself arrived for the start of the four-week rehearsal period, the director immediately blessed the company's Times Square studio and called on the "spirits" to look kindly on the production. "It really made us feel like we were doing something of value," said McCray.
To further generate the proper Kabuki mindset, Sato incorporated various aspects of Zen philosophy into the company's training process. "We try to get them to understand Zen in very gentle ways," Sato said. "Not by sitting in meditation and playing Zen monk, but in the most fundamental ways."
To encourage humility, for example, Sato had the company scrub the studio floors each morning before rehearsal, an exercise typically performed by the least experienced actors in a Japanese Kabuki company. Also, by forbidding shoes to be worn within the cramped rehearsal area, the director tried to promote a feeling of reverence for the stage.
"By creating in their minds that it's a sacred space," Sato said, "the communication between director and actor becomes elevated to a higher plane." This attitude, he said, will later be reflected in their performances and "lead the audience to show great respect for that kind of artistic devotion."
Things weren't made any easier by the fact that the actors had only four weeks in which to learn the acting, dancing and vocal styles that Japanese Kabuki actors spend lifetimes perfecting.
"To do a normal American play you like to have six to eight weeks," said Irwin Appel, the 26-year-old Newport Beach native who will appear in the title role. "We've achieved a lot of things in a short time but because of the time element there was frustration in not getting results right away."
Sato's approach to this problem was to ask the actors to concern themselves less with mastering the unfamiliar visual aspects of Kabuki theater and concentrate simply on coming to an understanding of the characters through their Western stage training and experience. Only after that had been accomplished did the director apply what he terms "Kabuki soy sauce" to the characterizations, a process that involves perfecting the style of the various gestures and movements and giving each performance the correct "Japanese flavor."