STAGE: 'SHOGUN MACBETH'
*By MEL GUSSOW
*Published: November 21, 1986, Friday
VICTORIOUS in battle, the general is awarded the title Ryoshu of Akita. Almost immediately he is consumed by ambition and activates a plot to become Shogun himself. With the incitement of his wife, he begins to slaughter his way to the crown. In the background, uttering dire incantations, are ''three weird Yojos.''
The play, with a sea change, is of course ''Macbeth,'' retitled ''Shogun Macbeth'' and transported from 11th-century Scotland to 13th-century Japan. As adapted and directed by John R. Briggs at the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, this is - despite all the differences - a dynamic variation on the original.
It is not simply a case of shifting ''Hamlet'' from Elsinore to Edwardian England, but a cultural transmutation. As Akira Kurosawa did in ''Throne of Blood'' and ''Ran,'' Mr. Briggs has approached Shakespeare as if he were a Japanese playwright. In a sense, ''Shogun Macbeth'' is a Kurosawa film on stage.
The costumes could clothe a samurai army, warriors carry fans and the witches wear Kabuki makeup. Dominating the set is a large sculptured Buddha. Mr. Briggs has made cuts in the text and, as a framing device, he has added the character of a blind storyteller. The result is a reconstitution as well as a reinterpretation.
Though language and character are altered, the soliloquies remain and the themes are immutable. At its bloody heart, the play is still ''Macbeth,'' albeit an exotic one, with a universality transcending time, place and performance style. Even as we smile at individual alterations (the assassins are referred to as ''the best of the ninja''), the approach is not corruptive.
None of this would be true if the acting were ineffective. Happily, the Pan Asian troupe, though more accustomed to dealing with naturalism, rises to the demands of epic drama and delivers a unified performance. Ernest Abuba and Freda Foh Shen, who played their roles for Mr. Briggs last year at the Dallas Shakespeare Festival, perform a double-edged feat. They are deeply immersed in the conceptual variation at the same time that they convince one they would be equally secure in a traditional ''Macbeth.''
Mr. Abuba is a valiant as well as immensely confident Macbeth, disdainful that anyone might think he was not the best leader of his people. When he decides that his opposition is ''assailable,'' he says the word with finality. This is a strong-minded Macbeth and, with the intensity of Toshiro Mifune, the actor artfully delineates his fall into derangement.
As Lady Macbeth, Ms. Shen is seductive as well as insidious. Her cold-bloodedness is carefully concealed as she beguiles her husband and wills him into action. Physically, the two are well-suited to their roles and to each other as partner, conveying an obsessive mutual attachment. In her performance, Miss Shen adds a choreographic dimension, as in her sleepwalking scene.
The two principals are surrounded by a stalwart company - Donald Li as a sternly regal Duncan; Raul Aranas, Mr. Abuba's peer as Banquo; Mel Duane Gionson, Norris M. Shimabuku and Natsuko Ohama, among others. Brandishing katana (or long swords), they are deft duellists, including Ms. Ohama, a credit to the martial arts instruction of the fight director, David Leong. Though, in the heat of dialogue, some words are lost to the winds, the spirit does not waver. This visceral production could help to lift the legendary curse from the Scottish (now Japanese) tragedy. EXOTIC SHAKESPEARE SHOGUN MACBETH, by William Shakespeare; adapted and directed by John R. Briggs; lighting designer, Tina Charney; set designer, Atsushi Moriyasu; resident costume designer, Eiko Yamaguchi; Japanese Movement, Sachiyo Ito; fight director, David Leong; military armor and Macbeth's helmet from the Dallas production, Robin Murray; special creation, Stanley Allan Sherman; production stage manager, Dominick Balletta; stage manager, Arthur C. Catricala. Presented by the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, Tisa Chang, artistic-producing director; Elizabeth H. Hyslop, managing director. At Playhouse 46, 423 West 46th Street.
Kuroko...Lori Tanaka and Shigeko Suga; Biwa Hoshi...Tom Matsusaka;
Yojo of Evil Samurai...Allan Tung;
Yojo of Death...Toshi Toda;
Yojo with Spider Face...Ako;
Duncan and Siward...Donald Li;
Malcolm...Mel Duane Gionson;
Donalbain...Michael G. Chin;
Soldiers...Lori Tanaka, Shigeko Suga and Christen Villamor;
Fujin Macbeth...Freda Foh Shen;
Macduff...Norris M. Shimabuku;
Taro Kaja and Young Macduff...Christen Villamor;
Jiro Kaja...Shigeko Suga;
Fujin Macduff...Natsuko Ohama;
Momo Macduff...Lori Tanaka;
Young Siward...Dalton Leong.