Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki Troupe, Washington DC, Warner Theatre, July 28, 2004

Kabuki is considered one of Japan's four traditional theatre forms, alongside noh, kyogen and bunraku (puppetry), and dates back to the 17th century. Performances combine music, song, spoken dialog, and dance to tell a story, which may be light-hearted and humorous or serious and dramatic. In this sense, it is very similar to Chinese opera (which adds in martial arts and acrobatics). While the stage sets and music may be spare, the actors' makeup and costumes can be quite elaborate. For a good, but simple, introduction to the key elements of kabuki, visit this site.

While kabuki programs occur nearly daily at Tokyo's Kabuki-za theatre, it is a rare experience indeed for anyone outside of Japan to see a performance. Fortunately for theatre-goers in Washington DC, the Japan-America Society and Japanese Embassy teamed up to sponsor a one-night-only performance by one of Japan's most popular troupes, the Nakamura-za. Similar performances were held in New York and Boston.

Kabuki traditions are usually passed down from father to son (female roles are always played by men). In this troupe, the father is Nakamura Kankuro, who is joined by his son, Nakamura Shichinosuke (who played the Meiji Emperor in The Last Samurai), and four other unrelated performers, Bando Yajuro, Kataoka Kamezo, Nakamura Senjaku and Nakamura Hashinosuke. The troupe is very popular and is, in fact, returning to Tokyo for a month-long engagement at the Kabuki-za during August.

The Warner Theatre show consisted of two performances, a shorter comedic piece, "Bo-shibari" and, after a half hour intermission, a longer dramatic piece, "Rejinshi." Both were performed entirely in Japanese, with no subtitles or translations made available. The Japanese used in the plays was spoken very slowly, but was exaggerated, and often very formal, so was not necessarily easy to pick up on. Wisely, a brief synopsis of both performances was read to the audience prior to the curtain lifting. This quite literally set the stage for the plays to come.

"Bo-shibari" is adapted from an earlier kyogen play and features broad humor easily appreciated, even despite the language barrier. The basic story is that a nobleman has grown tired of his servants sneaking sake from his personal supply. Before leaving on a trip, he tricks them into allowing him to tie one servant's arms to a pole, and the other's behind his back, rendering them incapable of stealing one drop of his precious sake. Or so he thinks. The two servants are very inventive, and manage to break into his prize cask of sake and are quite drunk upon his return. Each of the three performers is given at least one solo dance, and it's simply amazing to watch the dexterity of the two bound men as they simulate the movements of drunkards in dance.. The costumes are gorgeous, with even the two servants wearing elaborate outfits seemingly above their station. While short, "Bo-shibari" is very amusing, providing a nice introduction to kabuki.

After the intermission, Nakamura and his son took the stage, playing two actors rehearsing kyogen roles as a father lion and his cub. The two men carry masks to signify their roles in the play within a play. At one point, the older lion tests the cub by pushing him down a hillside (represented by the younger actor moving off the main stage and onto a runway of sorts), and watches proudly as the cub struggles to regain the top. When he does, the two actors conclude their rehearsal, yielding the stage to two traveling priests, who serve as comic relief. The male priest at first flirts with the comely female priest, until he realizes she's from a rival religious faction. An amusing battle of "my religion is better than yours" breaks out until the pair, startled by an unknown sound, flee the stage.

The sound turns out to be Nakamura and his son returning to the stage, this time dressed elaborately as the spirits of the lion and cub, with gorgeous, formal robes, detailed makeup and long wigs (of vibrant white, for the father, and red for the son) that trail to the ground. The pair dance, enjoying peonies and butterflies, building to a proudly fierce display of mane tossing (the actors whip the lengthy, trailing wigs around their heads for minutes, no small feat) that concludes the play.

For both performances, the band -- primarily shamisen, flute and percussion players -- was on stage, seated on a pair of risers that spanned nearly the stage's width at the back. On occasion, one of the players would add vocals or chanting to the music. Set pieces were sparing, relying on a few wall hangings and a handful of props (sake barrel, flowers and butterflies on poles, etc.) to flesh out each scene. The performers who were not in character knelt near the musicians, darting out on occasion to tighten ties, adjust costumes and other small tasks. Although it sounds disruptive, their work flows naturally with the movements of the actors and doesn't detract from the performance.

The stage itself is an important player alongside the actors -- the wood floor becomes a percussion instrument under their explosive steps. It would not be possible to recreate the same sound on anything other than wooden planks. A runway jutted out into the audience, allowing for dramatic entrances and exits, which, unfortunately, were not visible from the balcony seats.

The sold-out audience at the Warner Theatre was very enthusiastic, often bursting into applause after a particular dance, and giving the troupe a standing ovation at the end. And it was well-deserved -- the actors made an exotic art form very accessible, bringing a little bit of Japan to Washington. Though the average theatre-goer may not get many opportunities to experience a kabuki performance, I highly recommend jumping at any chance to see one.

[April Gutierrez]