In the second of two programs it is presenting in the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, the Grand Kabuki of Japan confirms and extends the impressions engendered by the first. This is a stunning company, as sure in the smallest effect--the modest bow of a grief-stricken head, for example--as it is in the cumulative tumult of grand battle.
It mixes psychology as modern as today with fantasy out of the mists of time, lavish costumes with precise gestures that seem to be writ in the starkness of India ink. It appreciates the nobility of men, who can be summoned to the highest levels of sacrifice. And it also revels in the scurrilousness of those self-same men, who, when the master's back is turned, dip into the vat of sake and get roaring, stinking drunk. It appreciates the delicate beauty of women (played by men only) at the same time it can view them as creatures of lethal enchantment.
Indeed, at the climax of the third play on last night's bill ("Masakado" or "The Demon Princess"), a vengeful courtesan (Utaemon) sends a legion of warriors into back flips with a mere flick of her wrist, provokes an earthquake that brings down a palace, and ultimately conjures up a huge toad to fight the young lord who once helped destroy her father. Medea pales in comparison.
By the same token, Tamasaburo gives an exquisitely touching portrayal of grief as the mother in "Kumagai Jinya" (Kumagai's Camp"), who discovers not only that her son has been beheaded in war, but that her husband (Kanzaburo) has done the beheading. Remote as this 18th-century drama may initially seem with its insistence on a complex feudal code of honor, the actors distill their emotions to a rare essence, applicable to all ages. The final exit of Kanzaburo--repentent, broken, bewildered--is one of the singularly great moments of acting anywhere.
Finally, for sheer acrobatic bravado, there's "Bo-Shibari" ("Tied to a Pole"), in which a wary lord binds the hands of one servant behind his back and then ties a second servant, spread-eagle style, to a pole, so they'll keep out of the wine cellar while he's gone. How the servants (Tomijuro and Kankuro) manage to get soused just the same constitutes an antic romp worthy of Boccacio.
Last night's program will be repeated tonight and Saturday afternoon. But whichever program you get, you'll be seeing the remarkable fruits of a remarkable theater tradition.