Wielding swords and bravado. Grand Kabuki turns melodrama into courtly art

The Grand Kabuki of Japan is back in the United States, and the high point of its first show isn't a happy smile or a friendly wink -- it's a glare, flung at the audience with all the fierceness a great Japanese actor can muster. Not just any performer can pull off this particular glare. It takes years of practice in a tradition more than three centuries old. In the Kabuki sampler now beginning an American tour at the Metropolitan Opera House, it is bestowed by a special actor with a special name: Ichikawa Danjuro XII, by common consent the reigning monarch of this very old, very stylized, very spectacular form of stagecraft.

Danjuro XII took his throne this spring, when the Kabuki establishment decided he had earned the highest rank its art has to offer and honored him with the Danjuro name. It has been carried by just 11 other actors (including his own late father) since the first Danjuro established the Ichikawa acting clan in the late 17th century. The new Danjuro zaps the audience with his specialty, the traditional glare, during replays of the ceremony that gave him the name he will now carry throughout his career.

Marked by elaborate speeches in the formal Kabuki vocal style, this ``Kojo'' rite is one of the briefest and most evocative pieces in the first of two touring Grand Kabuki programs. The visit of this troupe (the largest ever to perform Kabuki outside Japan) is timely, since Japanese theater has exerted an influence on such visually oriented American directors as Robert Wilson and Lee Breuer, and deserves fuller understanding among Western viewers -- who responded in great numbers during the last Kabuki visit, in 1982.

The history of Kabuki is enormously long by American standards. The style is said to have begun around 1600, created as a popular entertainment spiced with action and violence. It soon became a men-only affair, with actresses banned from the stage and female roles taken by male performers, as in the English theater of Shakespeare's day. Once established and made ``respectable,'' the Kabuki tradition started to crystallize during the mid-17th century -- forming set structures of language, gesture, and costume that still form the core of the art.

Apparently too exotic for mass audiences even in its native country, Kabuki isn't likely to become a fad on American stages. But it has special pleasures for theatergoers with a taste for tradition and an eye for nuance. Like a combination of Western opera and ballet, it blends predetermined patterns of speech and gesture -- often accompanied by music -- into elegant displays, fixing the deepest human emotions in immaculately controlled artistic frameworks.

Beginning its first touring program on an elaborate note, the troupe introduces itself with a ``kaomise,'' or ``face-showing'' play featuring all the actors who appear in its current repertoire. The title is ``Shibaraku,'' which means ``Just a Moment!'' -- the cry of the larger-than-life hero as he arrives just in time to rescue innocent victims from a wicked nobleman. A legacy of Danjuro I from 1697, it's a courtly melodrama that shows off the ``aragato,'' or ``rough stuff,'' style, a crowd-pleasing mixture of rhetoric, violence, and heroics.

Next comes ``Tachi Nunu-Bito,'' translated as ``The Sword Thief,'' a lively concoction about a tipsy samurai and a wily robber. The highlight is a sort of slapstick pas de deux, as the warrior does a storytelling dance that the crook tries and fails to imitate.

I was most impressed with the evening's final offering: ``Kasane,'' a minimal melodrama about illicit lovers with a tragic past. Complete with murder, demonic possession, and even a peripatetic skull, the plot (like that of some Western operas) would suit a hard-core horror flick. The action is so superbly stylized, though, that the horrors are tamed before our eyes -- transmuted into tragic but transcendent art by atmospheric settings, poignant music, and exquisite performances by Takao and Tamasaburo, the latter a leading ``onnagata,'' or specialist in female roles.

The second Grand Kabuki program features two additional works by the same 91-member company, which includes (among the actors and musicians) three men officially designated ``living national treasures'' by the Japanese government. The plays on Program B are ``Tshuchigumo,'' with Shoroku II as a magician and a spider; and ``Sakura-Hime Azuma Bunsho,'' starring the brilliant ``Kasane'' duo. After their two-week New York run ends on July 20, the troupe will appear at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and Royce Hall in Los Angeles.

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