Shogun Caesar: Lumina Studio Theatre’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, set in feudal Japan

Shogun Caesar: Helen BowersHeen Bowers performs Caesar's opening dance

What happens to a head of state who has grown to love his power, who is insatiably ambitious, who subverts the law to achieve his aims, and whose arrogance makes him impervious to critique?  To answer this question, you might need to know the context.  For instance, are we talking about a 21st century democracy, feudal Japan or ancient Rome?

SHOGUNTheOldMan(AbbyWeissman).jpgIf the context is Lumina Studio Theatre’s recent rendition of Shogun Caesar, the head of state is a female Samurai, and the timeless themes of Shakespeare’s play allow the audience to explore power and politics, rhetoric and revolution through all the ages.

What happens to those youth who mount this extraordinary interpretation of the great Bard, with magical Japanese Noh theatre choreography, flashing katana fight sequences, and haunting Bunraku puppets?  They love it.  And so does the audience

Once again Lumina has given the community the rare gift of theatre, highlighting the talents of local youth, ages 8 – 16, and the masterminds David Minton and Jillian Raye Minton.  Alas, Jillian passed away before the show opened, but her spirit was present for having conceived with David the interpretation, the casting, stage design, set and costumes — and the seamless, genius integration of W.B. Yeats’ “At the Hawk’s Well” as a play-within-the-play, thereby accommodating 40 actors in each of two casts.

Jillian’s unbridled enthusiasm and love of great drama, literature and language was imparted to each and every student who had the privilege of working with her.  Together over the years, Jillian and David have raised the bar for their young actors’ achievement, always striving to reach the highest professional standards for their work.  Shogun Caesar was the culmination of a vision that David Minton had carried with him for decades, ever since spending time in Japan at age 20, studying the ancient Noh and Kyogen traditions of theatre.

SHOGUNGhostOfCaesarTen-FootPuppetByPyramidAtlanticGretchenSchermerhorn.jpg“The audience has never seen anything like this,” David told the actors assembled in the Round House Theatre black box stage in Silver Spring, just before the opening performance, “and they won’t see anything like this again soon.  This is a most unusual collaboration between our brilliant Japanese performance artist Shizumi (Manale — choreography and consulting in all things Japanese), and Pyramid Atlantic (masks and puppets): a one-of-a-kind interpretation. You have a great show.”

And it was. An incredible meeting of Japanese performance aesthetics with Shakespearian plot, characters and verse understood and executed with flair by young actors.

“I was really amazed that these were young actors! I couldn’t believe how well they handled the amount of and complexity of the lines and of the content. I kept expecting them at some point to show some form of theatrical or personal immaturity, and it just never happened… What a celebration of talent, of motivation, and seriousness of purpose.

We hear quite a bit these days about kids who are glued to TVs and video games, struggling with ADHD and anti-depressants, or who are not goal-oriented, but here is a stellar example of 40 young actors (with lead roles played by 14-year-olds), who have risen to extraordinary heights and who should be mentoring all those other kids.  What an inspiration!”

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­­­­­­­­–Joanne Rasi, Library of Congress
SHOGUNMusicians_Wendy_Lanxner,_Rachel_Gelfeld.jpg

“Shogun Caesar was a kn­ockout triumph in every respect. After two hours of being utterly transfixed by the tale of conspiracy, murder, betrayal, demagoguery and popular passion, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been watching actors who were too young to drink, vote and, in most cases, drive.

What Lumina Studio Theatre is doing is transformative and magnificent and, at other times and in other places, would be considered absolutely subversive.

If you want to see what real education looks like, go watch a Lumina production and let the cast, the set, the costumes and choreography, stage combat, the music, and the whole experience blow your mind. This theatre company is a community treasure
and is deserving of national attention and recognition.

If anyone had any doubt whether David Minton and Lumina could survive the loss of the great Jillian Raye Minton, this production was the answer. What an extraordinary tribute to Lumina’s founder Jillian and to the courage and vision of David Minton.”

—State Senator and “Shakespeare fanatic” Jamie Raskin

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Maybe that is the key to what defines Lumina’s approach:  by the end of the day (at the opening of the show) the actors own it.  It is, indeed, their show.  It’s not just about lines, blocking, costumes, movement and cue pick-ups.  It’s about integrating all these elements, listening to each other, attending to action on the stage, and drawing the audience in. 

“… Incredible… One of the most stirring performances I have seen in a long time… Fabulous

— Suzan Jenkins,
Executive Director Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County

“[Lumina’s “Shogun Caesar”] was inspired by all of Japan’s theater– not just Noh, but Kabuki and Bunraku as well.  I marveled at how this serious play was performed by 8-16 year olds, and how much work went into it… How lucky these young people are to be exposed to Shakespeare and Japanese theater at the same time. The musicians were perfect, too.  They provided the mood and caught the Noh type of fluting and drumming.”

—Dr. Miyuki Yoshikami
Adjunct Professor, University of Maryland

SHOGUN CAESAR
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As teachers and educators, we are always looking for “learning moments,” those situations that generate flashes of positive insight.  For the sheer density of learning moments, nothing beats theatre.  Everything, from the way Lumina nurtures budding actors, to the challenges it provides for the more experienced, the theatre experience is rich with lessons relevant to higher learning.

And all of it applies to the “bigger” stage that is Life:  teamwork, memorization, exposure to great literature, time management, mental discipline, finding your voice, building confidence, physical strength and coordination, learning that there are no small roles, committing to excellence – and, finally, finding your limits and stepping past them, downstage center, right into the spot light.

NOTE:  The photos featured in this article were taken by documentary filmmaker, Elliot Berlin, best known for his powerful and award-winning movie, Paper Clips. The red cast photos were taken by Ann Riley and can be viewed at http://s466.photobucket.com/albums/rr27/pagnottinal/?albumview=grid.

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