Grand Kabuki may be traditional, but it pours plenty of energy into here and now

The profoundly traditional nature of Japan's Kabuki theater can be directly experienced in ``Tsuchigumo,'' or ``The Earth Spider,'' now touring the United States in an intense Grand Kabuki production. Both main roles -- an evil magician and the spider he turns into -- are played by Shoroku, one of five Kabuki actors designated ``living national treasures'' by their government. Moreover, his son plays another part in the drama and his grandson yet a third. The same production also features Danjuro XII, o ne of a handful of performers to carry a name handed down for 300 years to exceptional Kabuki actors. Still, for all this traditionalism, the Grand Kabuki is a vital organization that clearly pours its energy into the here and now. Program B of the troupe's recent appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House was less varied than Program A, but more dramatic -- vividly conveying a centuries-old Asian art form to a contemporary Western audience.

The program opened with excerpts from ``Sakura-hime Azuma Bunsho,'' or ``The Scarlet Princess of Edo,'' dating from Kabuki's ``decadent'' period in the early 19th century. The lurid action is replete with murder, rape, odd obsessions, and other soap-operatic stuff; the dialogue (as heard in simultaneous translation via headset) is surprisingly racy at times. The point of the show isn't melodrama for its own sake, however, but the conversion of even the nastiest material into art bolstered by ingenious p erformances and visually stunning sets. One wishes the Grand Kabuki had staged the entire work rather than a reduction of it, although even the cut-down version lasted a couple of hours.

``Tsuchigumo'' is more spare but almost as strong dramatically, spotlighting the actors on a bare stage backed by a large group of musicians. Dance and melody interrupt the fantastical story, which is enacted with the broadest of Kabuki postures and poses. There are no ensemble performances here as ideally matched as those of Tamasaburo (a specialist in female roles) and Takao in the ``Sakura-hime'' epic, but the acting carries plenty of stylized Kabuki power.

The Grand Kabuki is winding up its American tour with engagements at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and Royce Hall in Los Angeles.

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