"Shiro," the theatrical curiosity imported from Japan for a four-week run at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater beginning last night, has been described as "the first-ever samurai musical." To Western eyes, it looks rather like a mixture of Kabuki theater, "Hair" and half time in the football stadium. Strange, to say the least. Startling, on occasion. Baffling, most of the way.
The mystical saga of four contemporary youths who are propelled through a time warp back into 17th-century Japan, it is performed in Japanese by a youthful ensemble called the Tokyo Kid Brothers. An occasional passage of dialogue and a stanza or two of the songs are given over to the English language, which is delivered with painstaking phonetic care and near-perfect unintelligibility.
It would be far wiser to abandon any pretense at communication and let audiences cling to what exotic pleasures they can. That, at any rate, is what most spectators will end up doing. In the clash of old and new, the rock sensibility and ancestral traditions, "Shiro" turns up moments of theatricality that transcend one particular culture. But those moments come by fits and starts, and while some are delicate and graceful, others are aggressive and overbearing.
That, in fact, may be the dialectic of the show as a whole. The four time travelers seem to be seeking spiritual regeneration in an earlier era. (I distinctly heard one of them say to a samurai of fierce demeanor, "We do not know how to live. For us, life is empty.") However, just what synthesis comes out of the confrontation of then and now, I cannot say. The title character is a 16-year-old messiah, who apparently led an agrarian revolt against the wicked shoguns in feudal Japan. One of the four wasted youths is also named Shiro. A latter-day incarnation, perhaps?
Similarly, the pulsating rock score is tugged backward in time by the inclusion of traditional Japanese instruments in the on-stage orchestra. The plaintive meanderings of the wooden flute qualify the urban twang of the synthesizer. One number, "Zen," is sung by all the company members, seated peacefully on their haunches. It sounds suspiciously like "Aquarius."
Under the direction of Yutaka Higashi (who also wrote the book and lyrics), "Shiro" offers some vigorously stylized battles and a love scene of poignant lyricism. The present-day Shiro encounters his 17th-century lady fair under a shower of pink petals, raining gently from the hands of the other cast members. The petals come to rest on wide strips of cloth, then are gently wafted back into the air by hooded prop men. The lovers seem to be meeting and mating in a benevolent tornado.
The historic Shiro is first spotted on the back of a horse, emerging from the mists of eternity. Painted scrims fall swiftly from the skies, wiping out formal stage pictures as efficiently as an eraser on a blackboard. Opulent costumes are stripped away or turned inside out to reveal even greater opulence. Torches flicker and a great ceremonial drum resonates with volcanic force.
That much commands interest. But while the performers are earnest to a fault, "Shiro's" larger intentions remain obscure to an outsider. Its story seems to embody both satire and serious reflection, myth and history, inspiration and social criticism. As the King of Siam once said, "Is a puzzlement!"
SHIRO. Book, lyrics and direction, Yutaka Hagashi; music, Takashi Yoshimatsu; dances, Tamae Sha; scenery, Shigeru Uchida; lighting, Haruki Kaido; costumes, Masae Yoshida. Performed by the members of the Tokyo Kid Brothers. At the Terrace Theater through June 6.