Tradition With A Wry Twist

Nakamura Shichinosuke, left, and his father, Kanzaburo, perform at Lincoln Center in
Nakamura Shichinosuke, left, and his father, Kanzaburo, perform at Lincoln Center in "Renjishi," about a lion who teaches his cub courage. (By Stephanie Berger -- Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

NEW YORK-- He is comfortable in chalk-white pancake makeup and lavish silk kimonos. He has mastered specialized styles of Japanese dance. He is an expressive actor, his red-lipped face going cross-eyed and his gestures freezing at moments of high drama.

And taking the stage at the Lincoln Center to play a shyster lecher of a monk, Nakamura Kanzaburo, 18th in a line of Kabuki masters, stands as the very symbol of Kabuki theater's 400 years of tradition.

Then he opens those lips.

"He's a metrosexual!" he says suddenly in an aside onstage.

"He only has a limited high school education," he says of a play's character.

"Who writes this crap?" he asks in his minimal English.

Kanzaburo, it seems, has gone 21st century on Kabuki.

"We want to create new ways of Kabuki," he says in Japanese through a translator while sitting in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, his soft-featured and smooth-shaven countenance well suited for his art's facial demands. Then, he adds, eyebrows raised: "But it has to be successful."

In 2000, he created his company, Heisei Nakamura-za -- which is scheduled to perform two pieces today at the Warner Theatre -- to try to recapture the feel of the earliest years of Kabuki. Back in Edo-period Japan, beginning about 1603, the art form was new and raw and raucous -- and so weird that its very name meant "tilted."

Kanzaburo and his director, Kushida Kazuyoshi, infuse the classics with contemporary details to re-create that edginess of centuries ago. By doing so, they hope to appeal to the generation of Japan's vid-kids reared on Hollywood films and anime.

The tradition of Kabuki is innovation, Kanzaburo likes to say. But the other tradition of that early, populist Kabuki is scorn from upper-caste tastemakers. Kanzaburo, 52, has faced such criticism.

Still, he continues to perform at Kabuki-za, the venerated Tokyo theater that shows unadulterated productions of the classics. And he teaches his two sons with the same orthodoxy that his father taught him.

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