If you bring an open mind, Japan's Kyogen Theater can be a cultural treat
New York — American audiences are getting a rare opportunity to undergo a unique cross-cultural experience via Kyogen, Japan's classic comic theater. The Nomura Kyogen Theater, sponsored by the Japan Society here, is performing this formal Japanese entertainment - which has been compared to Renaissance Italy's commedia dell'arte - for several weeks this month in America.
Kyogen (which means literally ''crazed words'') developed in 14th-century Japan as a kind of intermission entertainment during intervals between the more serious No dramas. It relies on simple visual antics, lively physical movement, complex verbal exposition, and a touch of traditional exotic Japanese music which serves to complement the action. Program notes, provided by the Japan Society, explain the seemingly complex movements on stage.
The final dress rehearsal which I attended was performed on a stage built over the reflecting pool in the North Plaza of Lincoln Center here. The gray, corroding Henry Moore statue and a romantic full moon acted as a strikingly serene backdrop for the torch-lit stage. All of the action was mirrored in the water surrounding the seemingly floating stage. In effect, the total environment was as awe-inspiring as anything that occurred on stage.
Programs will vary during Kyogen's engagements. I saw ''Sambaso,'' a ritualistic dance to purify the area; ''Bo-Shibari,'' a skit about a young lord who ties up his two servants to prevent them from drinking his saki while he is away; and ''Kusabira.'' Translations of other titles on the program are ''The Bridegroom on the Ferry,'' ''The Owl Priest,'' and ''Two Men in a Single Pair of Pants.''
The three principal actors in the touring company - Mansaku, Mannojo, and Matasaburo Nomura - are the sons of the late Manzo Nomura, who first organized the Nomura Theater and was officially declared a Living National Treasure.
Like Kabuki and No Japanese theaters, Kyogen takes some getting used to. The audience here reacted with a combination of restlessness, boredom, and fascination. Kyogen demands that the Western audience show a willingness to become absorbed in the mores of another society. It also requires some patience with occasional incomprehension.
Keeping all this in mind, Kyogen can prove to be an memorable mixed-cultural experience that blends environment with performance, an experience bound to be savored by inquisitive international theatergoers.
Here's the remaining schedule: Dallas, Dallas Museum of Art (indoors), July 20-22; Boston, City Hall Plaza, July 24 at noon; Lincoln, Mass., Amphitheater of the DeCordova Museum, July 24-25.