Altogether it has been a summer of Grand Guignol at Kennedy Center's experimental theater, focusing as that Montmartre theater did on the gruesome and horrible, in a quartet of productions ranging from raunchy to brilliant. Brilliant is the word for Wisdom Bridge's Kabuki ``Medea,'' one of four Chicago theater festival productions (by this company and Steppenwolf Theater) brought here by the American National Theater. The brilliance of the Kabuki ``Medea'' is blurred initially by a wobbly start: At first the traditional Japanese theater techniques -- stylized, often slow-motion gestures and singsong delivery -- appear in an added prologue almost humorously out of sync with Euripides' tragedy. The word Kabuki is a combinati on of three Japanese words: ka, music or song; bu, dance; and ki, acting or skill. This production is helpfully performed in English, unlike the other two productions which American National Theater director Peter Sellars (who wears a trademark kimono) has brought to Kennedy Center this summer: the illustrious Grand Kabuki and the Wasedo Sho-Gekijo's Kabuki version of Euripides' ``The Trojan Women.''
In the Kabuki ``Medea,'' Euripides' tragedy is translated into a Japanese framework, far from his Greek Corinth. Medea becomes an Okinawan princess, Jason a prince of the Japanese imperial court who has been fighting in the China Sea and captures the golden dragon rather than the golden fleece. When Medea gives up her kingdom and family for Jason, they go into exile in Korea rather than Athens. The heart of the tragedy takes place in Korea, where the ambitious Jason throws over Medea 10 years later for the young daughter of the king. Her revenge is swift and fierce: She kills his bride by giving her a poisoned gown, then in an act of madness beheads her own two small sons to punish their father.
In this production, conceived, designed, and directed by Shozo Sato, there is a dramatic tension between the stylized beauty of the Kabuki tradition and the visceral action of Euripides' tragedy. The eye is delighted by the grace and color of the Japanese costumes, gorgeous as Monet flowers; by the intricate choreography of the actors' every dancelike movement; and by the atonal Japanese music, which conjures up the rumble of earthquakes, the whoosh of the sea, and temple bells.
But all this beauty set in the tragic context of the play has a cumulative effect, making the final lethal scenes doubly devastating.
The splendid cast for the Kabuki ``Medea'' was led by Barbara Robertson as a volcanic Medea, Dean Fortunato as both the fickle adventurer Jason and the King of Korea, Roone O'Donnell as the cruel Barbie doll of a princess, and Christine McHugh as a worldly nurse. Streamers Play by David Rabe. Directed by Terry Kinney.
There is some accomplished acting, too, in the Steppenwolf Theater's ultraviolent production of David Rabe's ``Streamers,'' a play in which a homosexual encounter in a Vietnam-era barracks precipitates a gory double murder, but the play itself is so sordid it neutralizes the talent.
``Streamers'' rests on sensationalism for its effect, but there are indications in its sharp dialogue and glimpses of character that Rabe doesn't need that prop to write a play of substance.
The fine cast includes Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, Erik King, Ron McCarty, Dennis Farina, and Ving Rhames. ``Streamers'' is directed in a brutal, explicit style by Terry Kinney, who uses full frontal nudity for the first time on the Kennedy Center stage.
The other two productions, earlier in the summer, included the Wisdom Bridge's ``In the Belly of the Beast'' and Steppenwolf's ``Coyote Ugly.''