Kabuki is one of the most human of the traditional oriental theater forms. Yet the program brought to the Kennedy Center Opera House this year by the Grand Kabuki of Japan consists of a double bill of plays that are skeptical about the prospects for humanity.
In "Renjishi," befoer intermission, a couple of lions make a couple of human beings look like fools. "Shunkan," following intermission, is a bleak indictment of a society that has turned the good guys into isolated exiles.
Both of the plays are orginally derived from the more aristocratic Noh drama. There is no pandering to the masses here.
Those who like Japanese theater primarily for the pageantry will be attracted more to "Renjishi" than to its mate. Two rows of musicians line the back of the stage crating wild and spirited sounds, and a huge painted tree forms a canopy over their heads. Butterflies skim over the stage, and peonies sprout.
There isn't much of a story.Big Daddy Lion tests the mettle of his offspring by pushing the cub down a ravine. When the kid returns unharmed, they celebrate. Meanwhile, a priest and nun of two different sects encounter each other while hiking through the mountains and begin bickering. There is much boasting of the powers of their respective sects, but when they hear the lions approaching, they flee. Their theology isn't much help against the king of the beasts.
The lions return for a final dance with glorious red and white manes swirling around their heads. Pantheism reigns.
The current version of "Renjishi" dates from 1872. "Shunkan" was created at least a century earlier, but it seems much more modern in both its stagecraft and its point of view.
The radiant colors of "Renjishi" are lacking in "Shunkan." It is set on a dreary island where three rebels against a powerful clan are in exile, subsisting on a diet of seaweed and water. Things look up, however, when one of the rebels falls for an island girl and marries her.
In the middle of the wedding celebration, a ship arrives from the mainland with pardons for two of the three plotters. The tidings are not as nice for the oldest member of the trio, Shunkan. He may return to the mainland only if he stays off the nasty clan's turf. And the ship bears bad new about Shunkan's wife.
Meanwhile, the mean chief envoy refuses to let the new groom leave with his bride. Shunkan, who is distraught over his predicament, murders the bad guy, who has a marvelous pink face as if he were a redneck sheriff. Shunkan turns his place on the boat over to the new bride, and everyone leaves him alone on the island. He climbs the island's highest peak to wave goodbye. He is heartbroken.
Nakamura Kanzaburo XVII plays both Shunkan and the father lion. He has been designated a Living National Treasure by Japan, and perhaps the most important word in that title is "Living." Though he was born in 1909, his lion is as spry as they come. His face is animated, his authority unimpeachable. In "Shunkan" his despondency is palpable, yet his final struggle requires that he keep slugging. He is a remarkable actor.
His son Kankuro Nakamura V plays his son, the lion, as well as the happy groom. The expertise seems to run in the family.
The entire delegation appears flawless to occidental eyes. "Shunkan" does not seem as immediately accessible as "Renjishi"; its stylized aspects occasionally jar because they are set in a context of comparative realism. But ultimately "Shunkan" is a weightier work.
Faubion Bowers provides simultaneous English translation over headsets for those who are interested. Sometimes the static on his soundtrack interrupts moments of stark silence; those who use the headsets are advised to keep a quick finger on the volume button. Ample program notes make the value of the headsets questionable.