Kabuki, like all things Japanese, has a secret vividness -- an unspoken sensuousness made more intense, like a flower center, by layers of etiquette. This is the ritual of restraint, and startlingly, the mask-like makeup and stiffened gestures transmit a sense of barely suppresssed power.
Even without simultaneous translation (via rented headsets), the Grand Kabuki at the Kennedy Center scores a direct hit. Kabuki is truly the life of these actors: They are fourth- and fifth-generation adepts who have learned a physical telepathy. The self- satisfied leer of an adulterous husband and the high-nosed suspicion of his jealous wife are easily read, but so are the wan illusions that wing across the face of a mother seeking her kidnapped son.
It is an art of silent challenges: the submissive neck of an onnagata (female impersonator -- all kabuki roles are played by men), the crimson under-kimono that hints of a breathtaking intimacy. In the erotic and troubling "Narukami" (The Thunder God), first performed in 1684, a monk's corruption is symbolized by his unbound hair; his seducer, unmoved, never loosens a strand.
Since the kabuki repertoire is of scattered origins -- many are adaptations of Noh dramas and some even come from the bunraku puppet theater -- it ranges widely in styles. "Migawari-Zazen," in which a henpecked husband tells his wife that he will spend the night meditating, then sneaks off to see his mistress, was adapted from the Kyogen comic theater. It involves a lengthy vaudeville-style mime of the drunken and delighted profligate reeling home at dawn in a woman's flowered robe. In "Sumidagawa," originally a Noh classic played behind real masks, virtually the entire story is sung -- wailed -- by singer-narrator Shizutayu, one of three Living National Treasures in the troupe.
Utaemon, who plays the trembling, half- crazed mother, and stocky Kanzaburo, sly and delicious as the wayward husband, are also designated national treasures. Although only 32, Tamasaburo, who plays the seductive princess of "Narukami," has become Tokyo's most famous onnagata; slender, incredibly delicate, he brings a porcelain clarity to the various deceptions of his role.
(Kabuki actors are referred to by their first names because there are only a handful of families, and each actor works his way up through a series of established stage names. It's as though there were dozens of Barrymores, one in each generation succeeding to the name John with the clan now headed by John XVI.)
There are a few lighthearted distractions. During the princess' licentious story, Narukami's Mutt and Jeff attendants are floored via the Batman school of translation: "Holy Lotus!" they are said to exclaim. Similarly, the self-effacing proficiency of the "invisible" stage attendants, who fetch and remove props, has to Western eyes a kind of humor about it.
These are long programs, certainly -- two bills of three plays each -- but fascinating. THE GRAND KABUKI -- at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday.