However you look at it, the Grand Kabuki of Japan is the repository of an extraordinary theatrical tradition. But the second of the two programs the company is presenting during its stay at the Kennedy Center Opera House may be the one you want to catch.
Introduced last weekend -- and to be repeated tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday evenings -- it contains the more varied and, I think, more accessible bill of fare. Neither program stints on spectacle, but perhaps because the second program is made up of four strongly contrasting pieces (as opposed to two in the first program), the impression of spectacle is somehow greater.
It doesn't hurt that all four pieces are of manageable length -- the longest running under an hour, the shortest only eight minutes -- or that humor figures prominently in several of them. On the second bill, you will also find what is to my mind the most astonishing of all the plays and playlets the company is presenting in Washington: an 1823 work titled "Kasane" that is both heart-rendingly beautiful and chillingly grotesque.
To a dark and rainy river bank, Yoemon, a disgraced samurai (Takao), has come to commit suicide, pursued by the beautiful Kasane, his pregnant lover (Tamasaburo), who wants to die by his side.
The air of romantic doom is suddenly transformed when a skull with a scythe embedded in it floats ominously down the river. The samurai, it appears, killed Kasane's father long ago, unbeknownst to her. Now the dead man's spirit has returned to inhabit the woman, disfiguring her face and flooding her soul with vengeance.
What starts out as a pathetic leave-taking of lovers becomes an unadulterated horror story. The samurai will murder his seething lover with the scythe, but even her death will not break the bond between them. As if in a bad dream, he will try to flee, only to be pulled back by the force of her spirit to the scene of the passionate crime.
Tamasaburo -- the company's leading onnagata (female impersonator) -- and Takao play out this dance of death with the matched artistry that marks them as one of the world's great acting teams. Going from a delicate creature, trembling in the storm, to a deformed woman, breathing fury, Tamasaburo is riveting. No less so is Takao, turned by destiny's curse from a strapping warrior into a helpless marionette. (At the end, the gleeful gods actually appear to be pulling him across the stage, yank by tug.) But what is truly transfixing is the ferocity of their acting -- the way one performer is so totally concentrated on the other, whatever the passion.
Of another tone entirely is "The Sword Thief," a bit of low comedy about a scruffy, unshaven pickpocket (Tatsunosuke) who steals the sword of a country bumpkin (Yasosuke) and then claims, before a magistrate, that it is his own. When the magistrate asks them both to dance out a history of the sword, however, the thief is obliged to ape the bumpkin's steps. Invariably, he's a beat or a gesture behind. It makes for an exotic version of monkey see, monkey do, and the performers tackle it with broad zest.
The rest of the program is devoted to Danjuro XII, the 39-year-old actor who on April 1 acquired his illustrious name. (Like crowns, names are passed from one generation of Kabuki actors to the next; Danjuro is the oldest and most prestigious.) The ceremony of congratulations, repeated on the Opera House stage, has the honored actor surrounded by eight of his peers, each of whom makes a short speech. ("From each corner of this theater, be fans of Kabuki," urges the venerable Shoroku. "I ask you to be my fans," coos Tamasaburo, something more of a flirt.) Danjuro then begs our indulgence and illustrates the famous "glare" that is characteristic of the Danjuro family.
That glare is put to protracted use in "Shibaraku," in the course of which the actor strides on stage to dethrone an evil courtier, behead an army of his henchmen and rescue a young shogun and his wife from death. The play really doesn't have much of a story to tell. It serves mainly as a pretext for Danjuro to display the aragato acting style, which is an especially flamboyant kind of huffing and puffing, not without its boastful humor. Garbed in layers of rich finery, made up like a black and white lion, and swinging his huge sword in menacing arcs, Danjuro cuts an impressive figure. He has the force of a great galleon, plowing majestically through the bounding main, and the visage to fright off any and all sea monsters.
You can't imagine ever getting in his way.