Over your headset, an English-speaking translator interrupts the story to provide some helpful background: The scene you are about to witness, he explains in the hushed and polished manner of a veteran golf commentator, is one of the most gruesome in the Kabuki canon.
What follows in "The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka" is the ritualized slaughter of an old man, Giheji, who has become a greedy thorn in the side of his son-in-law, Danshichi, a fishmonger played by the great Kabuki actor Nakamura Kankuro. The scene is both lyrical and riveting, a bloodbath. The murder occurs in and around a pool, and spectators seated along the hanamichi, or traditional Kabuki runway, are supplied with ponchos to protect against errant droplets of water and stage blood.
The production, by Japan's celebrated Heisei Nakamura-za company, was one of the most lavish components of the three-week Lincoln Center Festival that ended Sunday. Washington audiences now have a one-evening-only opportunity to see this troupe in action: Tonight, Heisei Nakamura-za comes to the Warner Theatre, where it will offer an entirely different program. Under the umbrella "Kabuki in Washington," the show will consist of two danced pieces, "Bo-Shibari" ("Tied to a Pole") and "Renjishi" ("Dance for Two Lions").
Kabuki of extraordinary caliber is so rare in the Northeast -- the Lincoln Center presentation was the first of its kind in New York in 15 years, and the Nakamura-za troupe has not been to Washington since 1979 -- that anyone with even the slightest curiosity about this style of theater, one that combines popular stories and classical forms, will experience a certain exhilaration. You don't have to be fluent in Japanese or even particularly well-versed in this 400-year-old genre. The company's work can be enjoyed for its value as spectacle alone.
One exposure, I must note, was not a conversion experience. I came away from an afternoon of Kabuki with abundant admiration for the technical agility: the actors' athletic ease and balletic discipline, the effortless transitions from moments of high drama to low comedy, the stylized combat, the stylish sense of caricature. But three hours was an extremely long sit for a tale built around a rather discursive display. It didn't help that your ticket entitled you to a flimsy cushion on a backless bench in a traditional Kabuki theater erected for the event in Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park. Patrons taking seats at the more conventionally furnished Warner will thankfully not have to worry about any added stress on the lumbar region.
Much of the satisfaction of "The Summer Festival: A Mirror of Osaka" was on the level of childlike discovery. Actors in the Nakamura-za troupe are rewarded with applause, apparently, anytime they make an exit via the hanamichi, and fellow actors break character at regular intervals to praise the work of their colleagues. Though Kabuki was founded in the early 1600s by a woman, it is now performed entirely by men. The domestic scenes in "The Summer Festival" seem to suffer as a result. Nakamura was far more magnetic and watchable as the avenging Danshichi than as a matronly hausfrau. Even so, segments of carefully coordinated mayhem -- particularly a wild finale that invited the guest-artist participation of several performers in the uniforms of New York's finest -- provided the adrenaline jolt you get from a well-made martial-arts flick.
Rich, imagistic treatments of Japanese culture spanned the centuries at the Lincoln Center Festival. Another highly anticipated entry was "The Elephant Vanishes," a distillation of Haruki Murakami's short stories by the British stage techno-wizard Simon McBurney and his London company, Complicite. Using a handsome and appealing troupe of actors from Tokyo's Setagaya Public Theatre, McBurney processes Murakami's tales as emblems of an age in which technology does not so much enable our imaginations as become the apparatus for haunting them.
McBurney, who in 2002 directed a powerful revival of "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" with Al Pacino, constructs a gorgeous electronic tapestry for these enigmatic stories that explore urban alienation and premonitions of death. He turns the stage of the New York State Theater into an eye-popping video extravaganza: Images flash on walls, televisions, the doors to a refrigerator. The streets of Tokyo whiz by in a neon rainbow, not unlike the mesmerizing city of the night in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation."
The kinetic canvas McBurney paints is stunning but also without anything like the intense highs and lows of real drama. Only the story of a woman trapped in a desultory marriage who has not been able to sleep for 17 days illuminates some peculiar aspect of existence. "The Elephant Vanishes" is itself a vanishing act: It's gone from consciousness within a few minutes of leaving the theater. It cannot be the intention that you depart with more appreciation for the technicians' skill with a mouse than compassion for the people of Murakami's Tokyo.