THOUGH IT HAS a venerable (350 years) history as Japan's traditional theater, Kabuki is not highbrow stuff. Born in and evolved from Japan's red-light districts, the plays are wicked fun along the lines of sensational pulp potboilers -- but this is trash elevated to exquisite art.

Kabuki's twisted plots rival our steamiest daytime soaps -- a single play may be soaked in such universally titillating topics as love, jealousy, revenge, suicide, rape, prostitution, reincarnation and villainy, with uniquely Japanese touches like poison blue lizards and karmic spirit fires.

Presenting six plays in two programs at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the 91- member Grand Kabuki Theater includes some of Kabuki's greatest names: Living National Treasure (and artistic director) Onoe Shoroku II; matinee idols Bando Tamasaburo V, the superstar onnagata actor (male actor of female roles), and Kataoka Takao, who plays the male heartthrob roles to Tamasaburo's women; and Ichikawa Danjuro XII, who recently assumed the most illustrious of Kabuki's family titles. The grand kojo name- taking ceremony is one of the plays reenacted on this tour.

Above all, Kabuki is an actors' art. Though we are meant to enjoy the plots (most Japanese audiences already know the enduring stories by heart), we are also intended to admire the actors' polished technique. It is not uncommon for performers to step out of character to make ad lib references to the well-known actors. Unlike Western acting, exaggeration, not realism, is the object of Kabuki.

This virtuosity is most evident in the classic Kabuki play "The Scarlet Princess of Edo," a luridly byzantine yarn about a princess who falls in love with the gangster who raped her years before (she recognizes him by his tattoo -- after the rape, she got one to match). Princess Sakura is the reincarnated spirit of the boy lover of the Buddhist priest Seigen, who is about to be supplanted by the scheming priest Zangetsu, who is having an illicit affair with the aging Nagaura, lady-in-waiting to Sakura. Sounds absurdly complicated -- which is part of its appeal -- and that is only the beginning: "Scarlet Princess" is presented here in abridged form.

Male actress Tamasaburo plays both Seigen's acolyte/lover Shiragikumaru, and the fallen Princess Sakura ("sakura" means cherry blossom), and he is convincing as chaste (and chased) princess, lust-driven lover and submissive wife. And Takao has a most demanding task, making lightning changes in the roles of the priest Seigen and the tough-talking gangster/gravedigger Gonsuke. One of the most entertaining performances is by Mannojo, who plays the randy, nagging lady-in-waiting Nagaura.

Opening Program B is "The Earth Spider," an engaging dance-drama adapted from Noh theater. It's the simple myth of a king (played by Danjuro XII) plagued by a mysterious malaise, which is caused by the sorcery of an evil monstrous spider (fiercely played by Shoroku), who comes to the palace in the guise of a priest to complete the spell. The king sends his soldiers out to kill the grotesque spider in his mountain lair, which they do, in a protracted dance/battle scene in which the spider spews miles of sticky streamers.

With the slow-motion storytelling and frequent mie freeze-frame poses, there's plenty of time to absorb the visual and aural pleasures of Kabuki: the lavish, richly patterned oversized kimonos; the otherworldly whiteface makeup, with colored lines that exaggerate grimaces and fiercenirami glares; the actors' processional entrances through the audience on the hanamichi elevated runway; the musicians, seated onstage in "Earth Spider," singing and playing their shamisen, flutes and drums in eerie, robotic unison.

Take along an extra $5 -- a simultaneous English translation is available with relatively comfortable infrared headsets, almost a necessity for non-Japanese-speaking audiences. This commentary, delivered in humorously dry tones by Kabuki authority Faubion Bowers, is colorful and unobtrusive, and adds immeasurably to enjoyment and comprehension.

THE GRAND KABUKI THEATER -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through August 4.