For professor’s last show, a woodblock print sets in motion a story of UW–Madison connections

Woodblock print by Jim Furstenberg
A woodblock print by UW–Madison alumnus Jim Furstenberg captures the complexity of the characters in “Rashomon.” (Photo by Sarah Maughan)

The woodblock print on display in the lobby of the Department of Theatre and Drama’s Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre shows a simple scene — a man and a woman in a bamboo thicket. They represent the characters of the husband and wife in “Rashomon,” the landmark 1950 film by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

In the print, the husband looks forward; his wife watches over from behind — but is her gaze loving or malevolent?

The print was created by the late School of Education alumnus Jim Furstenberg when he was a graduate student at UW–Madison in the 1960s. It was loaned to the Department of Theatre and Drama by his wife, Barbara, to display through the duration of the department’s production of the play “Rashomon,” which was adapted from Kurosawa’s film by Fay and Michael Kanin.

The play, directed by Professor David Furumoto — who retired from the department this past summer — had a successful run in July, and returns to the Mitchell Theatre from Sept. 16-26.

Barbara Furstenberg said that Jim was inspired to create the print after seeing Kurosawa’s film on campus.

For Furumoto, the play’s director, what he likes most about the woodblock print is that it captures the theme of the play — “the elusive nature of truth” — and the complexity of the characters. 

At first, the premise of the play seems straightforward: In a forest grove, a samurai is found dead, his wife assaulted, and a notorious bandit is captured. But as the mystery of the crime unfolds, witnesses tell very different stories of what happened.

You can see a duality in the expression of the wife in Furstenberg’s print, says Furumoto. 

“She is this character where one doesn’t quite know what version you want to believe in,” he explains. “In some cases, she’s this victim who’s been attacked and has been treated very poorly by not only the bandit, but by her own husband as well. 

“But at the same time there’s another story, where she is a cold-blooded opportunist.”

UW–Madison ties that stretch over decades

Within the print lies another story: of UW–Madison connections that stretch back for decades.

Both Jim and Barbara Furstenberg earned bachelor’s degrees through PhDs at UW–Madison in the 1950s and 60s. Jim studied art education for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then earned a PhD in adult education. Barbara earned an interdepartmental bachelor’s degree in American institutions, as well as a teaching certificate and a PhD in history.

Photo of Barbara Furstenberg
Barbara Furstenberg (Photo by Sarah Maughan)

“The education that I got (at UW–Madison) was seminal to my life,” says Barbara Furstenberg. It is one reason that she has stayed connected with the university through the years.

After they completed their education, Jim and Barbara Furstenberg moved to Hawaii so that Jim could take a job with the Honolulu Academy of Arts. Barbara eventually found a position as the director of community engagement at the University of Hawai’i.

Another UW–Madison alumnus, James Brandon, had pioneered the Asian Theatre Program at the University of Hawai’i. One evening, Barbara and Jim went to see a university production directed by Brandon, which was presented in the traditional Japanese Kabuki style. 

They were struck by one of the performers in the play: a freshman at the university named David Furumoto, who would later become a professor at UW–Madison.

“He had such a vibrant persona that I hardly looked at the other actor,” said Barbara. “He just totally drew your attention to him.”

This was Furumoto’s first major role at the university, and he went on to do more performing — and eventually directing — while he pursued his bachelor’s degree and MFA. After he graduated, and worked and studied both in Japan and Hawaii for several years, he ultimately decided to move to California to pursue an acting career, and the Furstenbergs lost track of him.

Jump forward to years later: The Furstenbergs moved back to Madison after they retired to be closer to family. They went to see a show at University Theatre one night. “It was shortly after we arrived,” Barbara says, “and Jim opens up the program and he says, ‘David Furumoto is on the faculty!’ ”

Opening students’ eyes to Eastern traditions

Photo of David Furumoto
David Furumoto (Photo by Sarah Maughan)

Furumoto joined the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Drama in 2000. He brought to UW–Madison a highly valuable perspective and experience with traditional Eastern forms of theater not often practiced in the U.S.

Furumoto says that though some of his acting students over the years have questioned the value of learning these traditional forms, they ultimately come around to it. 

“Yeah, it’s a different culture,” he says. “But if you really start looking, what is it that all actors are trying to do?”

Whatever style they are using, actors aim to embody a character and tell a story.

Furumoto feels strongly that Western actors can learn a lot from stylized techniques — whether Japanese Kabuki or Italian Commedia dell’arte — particularly when it comes to how they relate to their physical body on stage.

“I am a firm believer that an actor has got to have a very solid, what I call a ‘core,’ and nothing helps that core more than studying a theater form that is stylized,” he said.

Production of Rashomon
Liam McCarthy and Rae Wasson in the Department of Theatre and Drama’s production of “Rashomon,” running through Sept. 26 in the Mitchell Theatre. (Photo by Beau Meyer)

Though his expertise is in Japanese theater, over the years he has also enjoyed fusing Western scripts with Eastern techniques. For instance, he once directed a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in the Kabuki style.

Before retirement, Furumoto chose “Rashomon” for his final production at UW–Madison because he wanted to be able to apply his knowledge of Japanese theater, as well as provide opportunities for students in the department to perform and experience these stylized techniques.

The message he’d like to get across? “There’s more to theater than just Shakespeare and the Greeks,” he said.

“Rashomon” will be presented from Sept. 16-26, in the Department of Theatre and Drama’s Mitchell Theatre. Learn more and purchase tickets.

Editor’s note: The playbill for this production includes a content warning for depictions of physical violence and sexual assault, as well as information on campus resources for survivors.