Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The red and gold curtain of the Opera House, a gift from Japan to the Kennedy Center, rose Tuesday night for the first time on a Japanese company - the Kabuki Troupe of the National Theater of Japan.
In keeping with the Kabuki tradition of performing scenes from celebrated plays, rather than the entire works, the bill is a contrasting one: the final act of "Yoshitsune Sembonzakura" ("The Thousand Cherry Trees") first staged in 1747, and "Kurozuka," a 1939 version of an ancient Noh drama.
If the styles are vividly different, both works serve to introduce a major actor, Ichikawa Ennosuke III. Member of a celebrated acting family, Ennosuke, 38, has ascended, as Japan's actors do, to a famous name. As they age, Japanese actors adopt new names and the present Ennosuke took his from his great-grandfather, who lived from 1857 to 1922.
The art of Kabuki is essentially theater, though music and movement are integral to it. Above all, it is a story-telling art, stories which the major American explicator of the Asian performing arts, Faubion Bowers, admits "even the Japanese have trouble following the intricacies of the plot. However much the spectator may delight in the exotic or the connoisseur may quiver in the subtleties of polished, fragmentary details, the play's story is what everything is all about."
We Americans are accustomed to realism and naturalism; the Japanese art is unrealistic and artful. Our tempo is swift, the Japanese leisured. Our attitudes are informal, rarely disciplined; theirs are formal and starkly disciplined. We scorn the uptight; the old Japanese tradition is ritualistic. Contrasts are everywhere, including the fact that in this century, especially in the past 30 years, Japanese youth is becoming westernized, as Bowers says, "new and modern."
A collection of several unrelated stories, the "Yoshitsune" excerpt concerns Yoshitsune, a man who takes refuge with an old ally to escape his brother's court intrigues. He arrives to find that, unknown to him, he has protected his ally's mistress, Shizuka.
Now Shizuka returns accompanied, she thinks, by Yoshitsune. Instead, it is a white fox, empowered to disguise himself as a man. The white fox answers only to the sound of her hand drum. Reluctantly, the white fox explains the drum's power: Its skins are those of his parents. Today's overtones are perhaps ecological: Dumb animal he may be, the fox has a spirit. Perhaps we, too, have been, or will be, foxes.
In "Kurozuka" three priests seek a night's refuge with an old woman. She welcomes them, but bids them not to enter a particular room. Their servant does so to discover the old woman has hidden away bones of those she has devoured and is, in reality, a demon.
Both plays have dual roles, and here the latest of the Ichikawa Ennosuke line reveals his versatile power. In Kabukistyle almsot everything rests on the actor, and it's been said that even using the same words and intonations, performers can create entirely different effects. Intensity, facial expression, postures and acrobatics are all within this actor's skills and, to show still more, he took to the curtain calls, which are not given in Japan with sharp, aggressive zest.
The program notes are vital to appreciation; arrive in time to read them if you're not lucky enough to have copies of the Aubrey and Giovanna Halford "Kabuki Handbook" ot the writings of Bowers, A.C. Scott or Donald Keene, whose program notes are better than usual. There also are short-wave transistors available ($2.50), which have helpful if rather erratic English translations.
The run ends Sunday afternoon, with matinees today and Saturday at 2 adn Sunday at 1. It's a lot less expensive than a trip to Tokyo.