A friend was bored to death by the Grand Kabuki's performance Wednesday night at the Japan America Theatre, and that's a possible reaction. I had a wonderful time. The trick is to give yourself to what is happening onstage and to stop fretting about what isn't.
Dance audiences don't need to be told that, and this particular evening is more attuned to their expectations than was the Grand Kabuki's engagement at UCLA in 1985. This year's program--"The Two Lions" ("Renjishi," in Japanese) and "The Wisteria Maiden" ("Fuji Musume")--contains some accidental dialogue, but the pieces express themselves mostly through movement to music. (There will be five more performances, through Sunday night.)
That's enough, if the viewer will quash his lust for a story and let each piece do its work. Each comes from a different world. "The Two Lions" celebrates courage, force and male bravura, with a funny real-life inset about two monks with doctrinal differences.
"The Wisteria Maiden" celebrates the exquisite, submissive, childlike qualities of the female--as portrayed by the male onnagata . (No real-life inset here.)
In each case we watch gorgeously caparisoned performers go through their paces on a brightly lit stage. The auditorium is only a little darker. There's plenty for us to see and hear: Kabuki loves flash. But there's no attempt literally to take us to another world. The pine tree is a flat. The costumes are costumes--vestments, even. Any trips taken will have to be in the viewer's imagination.
"The Two Lions" stars Nakamura Tomijuro V as the White Lion (white with age, but still fierce) and Nakamura Hashinosuke III as his whelp, the Red Lion. The lions here are understood to be men/lions and with this cast we sense that the piece has something to do with the transmission of discipline from an older actor to a younger one.
An occasional bit of stoic sentiment is glimpsed, as in the moment when the White Lion supports the Red Lion with his shoulder. But the mane-tossing and the confronting and the mirror-moves are largely impassive. The two lions could be strangers, and that could be a theme, too: the necessary alienation of father and son.
But "The Two Lions" basically exists in the present tense. It is about its patterns, and they are commanding--even though a longer walkway would help. They are also witty. (A Western viewer is sometimes reminded of the mock-ferocious world of nursery animals--Tigger and the Cowardly Lion.)
The inset (with Sawamura Tosha and Arashi Kitsusaburo as the two monks) is a deadpan routine that pokes fun at religionists who stake everything on form: my bell vs. your drum. The dialogue doesn't have to be translated: The fall of the lines conveys the fun. The moves are scurrying, the mood droll and the performances light and clean.
A third section of the piece featured the instrumentalists, lined up like a jury at the back of the stage. Indeed, for dramatic tension, the highlight of "The Two Lions" is the slow buildup of drum taps just before father and son reappear in their full lion's regalia.
"The Wisteria Maiden" is a shorter piece. It opens in the dark--followed by a bang-on burst of the lights, revealing a stage dripping with purple wisteria, suitable for the entrance of Mame Burnside. (Kabuki is not too proud for show-biz comparisons.)
The onnagata is Sawamura Tojuro II. As he glides and bends (with particularly beautiful undulations of the head), he's the perfect picture of the demure child courtesan, unaware of her beauty and yet perfectly aware of it. There are also overtones of pluck.
It is an alluring image, not unlike that of Mary Pickford in early silent pictures. (Bando Tamasaburo V, the only other onnagata I've seen, projects a more troubled glamour, on the edge of tragedy.) Indeed, there's something almost smug in her cuteness. But in the end we're touched, as we might be to see a beautifully dressed child playing in a garden where no one ever comes.
Dr. Leonard Pronko of Pomona College provides an enthusiastic spoken introduction to each piece, perhaps telling us a little more about in each case than we need to know. This isn't the gaudiest evening of Kabuki ever seen, or the deepest, but it satisfies.
Performances are at 8 p.m. through Sunday night, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 244 San Pedro St. (213) 680-3700.