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Where the Bard Speaks in Many Tongues

September 13, 1993|HANA LESENAROVA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Neither Christian Arin, who plays Romeo, nor Eiji as Tybalt had their parts down cold in the first scene of Act III. They only recently started rehearsing Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" at the City Dance Studio on Robertson Boulevard and they have to keep looking at their scripts--Arin to the side printed in English and Eiji to the Japanese version.

"Tsuzukete, kudasai-- please, continue," says the director, Ross MacKenzie.

Eiji, a visitor from Japan, can speak and understand some English. Swedish immigrant Arin doesn't know any Japanese, so he's guessing when to speak his lines.

"I'm sorry. That would be you now," says Arin, backing up in the script. Then he interrupts Eiji too soon.

Welcome to a Fusion theater group production of Shakespeare, where the feuding Montagues and Capulets not only don't want to talk with each other, they can't.

The members of the Capulet family are played by Japanese actors and declaim their roles in Japanese, using a standard translation of Shakespeare's play. The English-speaking Montagues are played by a diverse group of Americans, a Swede and a Bulgarian, using Shakespeare's original text.

Fusion, a nonprofit group designed to bring different cultures together, was founded last year by MacKenzie, a 43-year-old actor, and Yasuhito Shirai, a student at Kobe University in Japan. The two met in Kobe where MacKenzie was teaching English and yoga.

"I had been in Japan for three months then and I begun to miss acting," MacKenzie says. "But I didn't want to hang out with the American group there, because when foreigners go to Japan they all hang out together and they don't experience the other culture. I wanted to learn about it since I've always been interested in multicultural relations. And that is the idea of Fusion--to expose Japanese culture to others and other cultures to Japanese."

Fusion's first project was a bilingual production of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" in Kobe.

MacKenzie, who studied at The Actor's Forum in London, has performed in a number of Shakespearean roles with companies including the Los Angeles Shakespeare Company and the American Shakespeare Company in New York.

"We've done Shakespeare because I love him, I have experience with his work and he has international ideas. And I always wanted to do 'Macbeth' since my parents came from Scotland," MacKenzie says.

After two auditions, MacKenzie and Shirai assembled a group ranging from semi-professional actors and actresses to housewives. MacKenzie directed and played Macbeth. He and the other two Americans acted in English with Japanese subtitles on the wall, while the other 15 actors spoke their native Japanese with English subtitles.

The group's "Macbeth" opened last November, filling the 300-seat theater in the Gaufrez Ritz Hotel in Kobe for three nights. Fusion not only sold enough tickets to cover its expenses, but made a profit of 100,000 yen that was donated to a charity for the blind.

MacKenzie returned to the U.S. at the end of the year and decided to continue Fusion here with financial support raised by Shirai in Japan, where donors are interested in the group's contribution to cultural relations between the Japanese and others.

He plans six performances of "Romeo and Juliet" beginning Oct. 28 at the Norman J. Pattiz Theatre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. The expected profit will be donated to The Children's AIDS Center at Childrens Hospital.

MacKenzie says the bilingual concept is especially apt for "Romeo and Juliet" "There are two families that are foes," he says. "And I think that the fact they both speak different languages shows better how they couldn't communicate with each other."

"Both Americans and Japanese will probably consider our production a bit weird," says assistant director Toshiyuki Kubono. "That is another reason we chose this play--because everybody already knows the story anyway."

MacKenzie's group of volunteers, chosen after auditions in July, are more experienced than the first group in Kobe.

Japanese actress Saemi Nakamura, 24, who plays Juliet, has lived in Southern California for three years. She plays a leading role in Robert Barnett's play "The Hiroshima Daughter," had a small part in the upcoming Oliver Stone movie "Natural Born Killer" and is involved in Japanese TV shows.

Arin, 26, attended acting school in Stockholm, Sweden. Besides his theater experience he's been in several movies in the U.S. and Sweden.

Assistant director Ikuma Hayashi was art department coordinator for the recent film "Rising Sun" and also taught stars Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes how to speak Japanese correctly.

MacKenzie describes his group as "potentially" good. They are communicating--if only in English so far.

"We come from many different cultures but we can share the same passions, same feelings, and by doing it we can create great art," says Nakamura.

Akiko Miwa, makeup artist for "Romeo and Juliet," sums up the cultural exchanges this way: She says MacKenzie's "already got this special Japanese feeling--he tries to be more polite and he does not push things."

MacKenzie is already thinking about his return to Japan where he wants to do his next production.

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