On a rare four-week tour of the United States, the Grand Kabuki brought a touch of feudal Japan to the Kennedy Center for a six-day engagement beginning last night. This is clearly an event--and not merely for those who like to collect cross-cultural experiences. A little patience and curiosity are good qualities to take to the theater with you, perhaps, but they are not pre-requisites. With a fine art, this remarkable company--77 members strong, including several actors who have been designated Living National Treasures by the Japanese government--both beguiles and astounds.
On the richly brocaded surface of things, few theater traditions are quite so exotic as Kabuki. Stylized to its very graceful fingertips, it unfolds to the persistent twang of the three-stringed shamisen, the crack of wood blocks and the gathering rumble of drums. The costumes represent layer upon layer of elegance. Actors, their faces painted ghostly white, play both male and female roles. Their features can be delineated with the boldness of a Halloween mask or with the fleeting delicacy of a Japanese print.
Even more alienating, at first encounter, is the leisurely pace with which events unfold. Western theater is keyed to accelerating time. We tend to prize plays that "build" to a climax and momentum is considered a fundamental component of our drama. Kabuki values each passing moment and explores it to the fullest. Western theater is interested in states of transition, the way things evolve. Kabuki often looks at states of being, the way things are.
Given our different orientations, the wonder is that Kabuki proves so accessible--startling to the eye and yet, ultimately, so familiar to the heart. Maybe that is the yardstick of great art. Whatever the means it employs, it reaches that bedrock experience common to everyone.
The Grand Kabuki will present two programs here, each consisting of three classics from its repertory. Last night's offerings, to be repeated tonight, Saturday evening and in a Sunday matinee, ranged from the overtly farcical to the magical to the grief-stricken. But whatever the tone, they all achieve a similar miracle. Initially disorienting, they slowly assert themselves on their own terms, convert an audience to their way of seeing the world, and leave the impression that we are, under the skin, all of a kind.
Take "Migawari-Zazen" ("Substitute for a Meditation"), for example. It is the centerpiece of the evening, and easily the most comprehensible. In it, a hen-pecked lord (Kanzaburo), whose face looks rather like a plate of cookie dough, informs his domineering wife (Tomijuro) that he is going to spend the night in solitary meditation, when in fact, he plans to cavort the night away with a sweet young thing he met in the provinces. To allay any suspicions, he convinces his servant to replace him under his prayer robe. The wife soon discovers the ploy and slips under the prayer robe herself, thereby setting up a turnabout that is surely as old as philandering husbands and suspicious wives.
It helps to have the instantaneous translation coming over the headphones you can rent in the lobby. But even without it, the delighted posturings of Kanzaburo, tipsy with delight and later tipsy with saki, are a timeless joy. Broad only in its outlines, his performance spins a virtual symphony of expressions from misguided mischief to playful passion. And his crumbling before his wife's anger at the end is grand clowning. (As that wife--"an old mountain monkey soaked in the rain," Tamijuro is a pillar of comic severity and gleeful rigor.) The propmen may be scurrying around the stage, adjusting costumes, and the seemingly strangulated sounds of the on-stage narrator may be echoing in the hall. But if you consider the basics, you could well be watching a robust medieval farce, or for that matter a Broadway sex comedy.
There is, likewise, a feeling of essential femininity--both its wiles and its lures--in the performance of Tamasaburo, the youthful Kabuki actor whose depiction of women has won him the kind of super-status in Japan that is accorded rock stars elsewhere on this planet. He appears in the opening play, "Narukami" ("The Thunder God"), set high on a mountain top, where a holy recluse has imprisoned the gods of rain. At the emperor's command, Tamasaburo's character, the loveliest woman of the realm, has come to seduce the priest and learn the secret that will open up the clouds.
The play, first presented in 1684, is the stuff of fantasy and myth. Or so it would seem, until Tamasaburo exerts the charm and the charming petulance of a woman who wants her way. So economical is his art that often the tilt of the head or the mere positioning of the hand is enough to define the drama of an impetuous moment. But there's a knowing awareness to the performance that makes Tamasaburo one of the dangerous temptresses, too.
The final piece, "Sumidagawa" ("The River Sumida"), is a poem on the nature of madness and grief. A mother (Utaemon), wavering on the edge of madness, discovers from a humble boatman that her son, kidnaped long ago, is dead. She is ferried across a river to his tomb, strews flowers on it, envisions him alive again, then collapses in anguish. Little else happens, but the shadings of pain and folly that dance across the face of Utaemon, the flutter of pale hands that have lost their moorings, and the increasingly tottering steps are Elizabethan in their dimensions.
If Kabuki goes to the innermost being, it is also wealthy in eye-filling spectacle. For the crossing of the river in "Sumidagawa," a boat wafts across stage, the gentle reeds melt away, a weeping willow drifts down from the heavens and the fateful tomb looms into view. The climax of "Narukami" boasts flashes of lightning, a burst of rain, and the metamorphosis of the holy priest into a vengeful devil. Each principal entrance down the long ramp that cuts through the Opera House is, in fact, a spectacle in itself.
But the real accomplishment is that an exotic art form, alien at first sight, manages to be so wondrously approachable by the evening's end.