By now, there have been more versions of "Rashomon" than there are folds in a piece of origami.
The account of a rape and murder retold four different ways by four different sources, it originated as Japanese stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. These were adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie by Akira Kurosawa in 1951. Eight years later "Rashomon" showed up on Broadway, scripted by Fay and Michael Kanin. And, hoping to cash in on a good thing, MGM remade it as a Western -- retitled "The Outrage" -- in 1964.
In other words, this demonstration of the way truth gets distorted in the retelling has been retold at least as many times as the story of the crime is in the text. Even the Vagabond Players, where "Rashomon" is currently running, have had a go at it before,having originally staged it 29 years ago.
The present version, directed by John Bruce Johnson, is uneven, but there are enough strong performances in major roles to leave you pondering the self-serving side of human nature, which is undoubtedly what the author intended before his story fell into so many other hands.
The script is a challenge for actors since it requires them to portray disparate motivations from one version of the crime to TC the next. Louis B. Murray is particularly adept at this as the notorious bandit, Tajomaru.
Convinced his accusers have already formed their opinion, he shows them what they expect to see -- a bloodthirsty, remorseless criminal. But in later versions, Mr. Murray is, by turns, gentle and cowardly.
Edwyn Williams is also strong as the cynical wigmaker, to whom this sordid saga is related by two trial witnesses. Although the role requires fewer transformations, Mr. Williams makes a compellingly crazy wise man; he is the one who utters the key to the play: "Everyone tells what he wants the world to believe."
In the less colorful roles of the victimized couple, Catherine Hyde is adequate as the lowly born wife, but Bruce Ruth is a bit bland as her samurai husband. Reprising her role from the '62 Vagabonds' production, Doris Crane Margulis admirably avoids histrionics as the medium summoned to the trial to call up the spirit of the murdered husband.
As the trial witnesses, a priest and woodcutter, respectively, Branch Warfield and Raymond H. Ridenour seem uncomfortable with the text, making it sound stilted.
Director Johnson does an effective job shifting tone for the varying accounts of the crime, especially in the final version, which seems as ludicrous as a situation comedy -- until we realize it probably reflects the truth.
"Rashomon" starts out with the supposition that man is evil; it concludes with the notion that he's merely selfish. Under the right circumstances, of course, evil and selfishness may be the same thing. But then, as this production aptly demonstrates, opinions on the subject are likely to vary.
"Rashomon" continues at the Vagabond Players weekends through May 5; call 563-9135.