To guarantee that New York’s first exposure to authentic Kabuki in 15 years would be memorable, Lincoln Center has erected a full-scale Kabuki theater in Damrosch Park and fronted it with a vest-pocket village square where craftsmen offer demonstrations of calligraphy, doll-making and other traditional Japanese arts. Inside the tented playhouse (or shibaigoya), one of Japan’s premier Kabuki troupes, Heisei Nakamura-za, makes its North American debut with a spectacularly staged production of a vintage drama that gives modern theatergoers a vivid sense of what wowed auds in 17th century Edo Japan. Leading actor Kankuro Nakamura V is the showstopper in this all-male company, members of a venerable acting dynasty that dates back 18 generations to the beginning of Kabuki theater.
His face a whitewashed mask in the stylized makeup of Kabuki tradition, Kankuro nonetheless registers an astonishing range of emotions through the formalized gestures and scripted facial expressions that characterize Kabuki’s ritualistic performance style. In character as Danshichi, a commoner with a propensity for heroics best left to the upper classes, Kankuro plays a well-meaning everyman whose bumbling attempts to perform a noble deed lead him to commit a hideous crime.
For reasons too complicated to go into (if told in its entirety, the intricate story would take from sunup to sundown to unfold, as it did in the Edo era), Danshichi volunteers to extricate a foolish young nobleman from his misalliance with a beautiful courtesan. Aided by two other wannabe samurai, a hot-tempered pickpocket (played with terrific gusto by Hashinosuke Nakamura) and a wise old fishmonger (a cunning conniver in Yajuro Bando’s perf), plus assorted concerned wives and mothers (played by the gorgeously costumed and bewigged male actors known as onnagata), Danshichi rattles his sword and has a fine time battling villains and rescuing fair ladies.
Some 40 actors (along with 20 musicians whose instrumental talents run largely to drums and gongs) lend their skills to these colorful feats of derring do, which spill over from the stage to the traditional center-aisle footbridge (or hanamichi) that brings thesps thrillingly close to the aud seated below them on cushioned floor seats known as sajiki. (Balconies are wittily packed with a rowdy crowd painted on flat backboards by inventive scenic designer Kanai Yuichiro.)
Up close, the black lacquered wigs, pasty white facial masks and sumptuous kimono are flat-out breathtaking. No less than the painted curtains and sliding panel doors that transform the stage into various indoor and outdoor settings, even the humble footwear is a model of Japanese design ingenuity.
But the most eye-catching costume piece is the flaming red loincloth that Danshichi wears when, goaded beyond endurance by his duplicitous father-in-law (a snaggle-toothed horror, in Takashi Sasano’s expressive perf), he kills the old man. Although the English translator in our ear informs us this graphic act of violence is “one of Kabuki’s most famous and gruesome death scenes,” no explanation of the tragedy is needed.
Despite the formalism of the ritualistically choreographed movement, helmer Kazuyoshi Kushida has staged this scene and the subsequent manhunt for Danshichi with a distinctly modern flair. And with his red-rimmed eyes staring out from his rice-powdered face, the estimable Kankuro gives an eloquent account of Danshichi’s ultimate damnation. Some things, after all, are neither old nor new, but timeless.