Washington audiences will have a chance to see both real and ersatz Kabuki theater in the coming weeks, starting Saturday when Chicago's Wisdom Bridge Theatre brings "Kabuki Medea" to the Terrace Theater. It is, judging from the Chicago reviews, a unique experience, a fusion not just of East and West but of Greek, American and Japanese theater.
This is Kabuki by way of Illinois, where director-creator Shozo Sato is artist-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has also used the Kabuki tradition of movement, speech and costume to stage Shakespeare ("Kabuki Macbeth") and opera ("Madama Butterfly" and "The Mikado").
Barbara Robertson, a striking redhead, who met Sato when she was a student at the university, plays Medea, a role she says she would have taken even if she had been asked to perform it standing on her head. In traditional Kabuki Robertson would not have got the part, because all roles are played by men. But this is not traditional Kabuki.
"There are two basic principles of art in Japan," Robertson says, trying to explain what she has learned from Sato. "Minimal, like Noh theater, and maximum, like Kabuki. If art were a crystal box, minimal would take things out of the box until it was so close to being a vacuum it would implode. With Kabuki, you put things in, until the point where if you put in one more thing it will explode."
The movement is all stylized and exaggerated. "If an ordinary actor looks at an object on the ground, a beautiful flower perhaps, then he simply looks at it," Sato explained to one interviewer. "But in Kabuki, one looks upward first, then, very slowly and deliberately, one looks downward, toward the flower."
Robertson, who won a Joseph Jefferson award for her performance as the tough tart Roxie Hart in the musical "Chicago," came to her part as Medea knowing nothing about Japanese performance. Her audition was to improvise three minutes of movement and then do a speech from "The Trojan Women."
"Characterization in Kabuki is expressed through movement," she says. "Our talking sounds like we're trying to imitate Japanese. It's like singing."
Sato added a prologue to show Jason and Medea meeting and courting. Medea's revenge is enacted symbolically, but is no less powerful for not being realistic. "At first when I was rehearsing and I'd get really into it, Shozo would tell me no, you must not burn with a yellow flame. You must be a blue flame . . . You can't fake it. If it's not there, it's egg on the face. They say if you don't feel it behind the eyes, it's a bad performance."
Robertson has made her career in Chicago, particularly in the "off-loop" theaters such as Wisdom Bridge. There she has been able to play a variety of roles, from classics to musicals to outrageous. "I'd like to go to New York because there are more opportunities," she says, "but I keep getting good parts so I don't go."
Robertson is married to a technical director and has a year-old son, Luke. She played the lead in "Caucasian Chalk Circle" in Chicago before coming here for "Kabuki Medea."