The two pieces that formed the one-night-only "Kabuki in Washington" at the Warner Theatre on Wednesday were performed without projected titles or English purred into headsets, yet almost nothing cried out for translation. The story lines of the traditional dance plays were easy to grasp, leaving the audience ample room to admire the rigorous artistry of the Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki Troupe.
For the uninitiated, a synopsis of the show was read from the stage beforehand by a woman clutching a sheaf of papers -- the only inelegant moment of the night. As it turned out, a solid majority of the crowd was on familiar turf. They knew Nakamura Kankuro, the company's star, on sight, and welcomed him with an ovation. That affection was contagious as Kankuro became the charming centerpiece of "Bo-Shibari (Tied to a Pole)" and a figure of rare command in "Renjishi (Dance for Father and Son Lions)."
The dialogue in "Bo-Shibari" was nearly nonstop, but you didn't need to know Japanese to laugh at the antics and the broad, almost musical speaking patterns of two conniving servants with a taste for sake. The performance is sprung by the idea that even though the master of the house ties up the servants, it doesn't prevent them from reaching the cask of sake and finding inventive ways to drink. Kankuro, with his wrists tied to a pole that rests across his shoulders and the back of his neck, even managed to dexterously flip a saucer from his left hand to his right, bringing smiles all around.
Nakamura Hashinosuke was Kankuro's nimble partner in crime, dancing with ginger high steps as his blood alcohol level rose. But Kankuro's characterization was particularly mesmerizing, from his hot-dogging with a martial arts pole (during which his face revealed a servant who is quietly full of himself) to his stately drunken dance, executed with the fierce concentration of the supremely soused. When the master finally caught the rascals, the essence of Kankuro's pathetic thick-tongued response was internationally recognizable.
While the acting was delightful enough, the surrounding technique was equally absorbing. A dozen or so musicians sat in two straight rows at the rear of the stage, playing drums, flute and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument plucked with a Y-shaped plectrum the size of a slingshot). They also supplied vocals that hovered in the realm between melody and chant. When the actors required props, the koken -- stagehands -- scurried into action, moving in a graceful straight-backed crouch, knees pumping like pistons.
For majestic entrances and exits, a hanamichi, or ramp, was erected over a section of seats on the left side of the theater. Kankuro made particularly striking use of the hanamichi in "Renjishi": When he reappeared in the second half of this largely danced piece, he paused as he neared the lip of the stage, then zipped backward some 20 feet on the narrow ramp in a stunning tightrope act. It was as if someone had punched a "fast rewind" button. The audience was dazzled.
So it was, too, at the end of "Renjishi," a stately coming-of-age dance full of floor-thumping stomps that Kankuro performed with his son, Nakamura Shichinosuke (who played the emperor in the movie "The Last Samurai"). Having swapped the lion's-head hand puppets of the first portion for long, furry manes that trailed behind them as they walked, father and son engaged in a traditional proud mane-tossing finish, swinging their heads and carving great furry arcs in the air for so long and with such rising intensity that they evoked three separate ovations. Not for mortals, this stuff.
With a complicated, 400-year history, there's a lot more to kabuki than what can be summoned in a single performance. This show amounted to only a taste, seemingly from the conservative side of the menu. And there is no telling when Washington will get more (and maybe something more challenging). Still, this expertly rendered sample certainly whetted the appetite.