From time to time, traditional Kabuki theater makes its way to Southern California, but modern Japanese realistic drama?
Not within memory.
Not, that is, until last Friday, when "Make-Up," a one-woman tour de force written by Hisashi Inoue, directed by Koichi Kimura and performed by Misako Watanabe, arrived for one performance at USC's Bovard Auditorium.
The show, repeated earlier this week at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatrecq in San Diego, comes to Orange County tonight and Friday. It will be presented at Rancho Santiago College's Phillips Hall in Santa Ana.
The Japanese call this sort of contemporary Western-style realism shingeki. To unaccustomed eyes, it is a revelation on several fronts. Watanabe for one. This is a consummate, whimsical actress who is something of a cross between Giulietta Massina and the late Anna Magnani--vital, exuberant, self-assured and clearly capable of handling the vastest range of demands. In Inoue's little melodrama, which is more skillful and complex than it at first lets on, she riffs through an entire gamut of emotions, comic and dramatic.
Briefly, we are invited into a shabby, small-town theater dressing room where the actress-manager (Watanabe) of a third-rate provincial company that specializes in a Populist form of blue-collar Kabuki (called taishugeki or shitamachi no Kabuki) is getting ready for the next performance.
The play is her favorite--"Isaburo's Journey of Farewell"--a tear-jerker about a mother's near-reunion with the son she had reluctantly abandoned at birth because of hardship, leaving her to wonder about his fate for the rest of her life. In this play-within-the-play (as Watanabe tells an invisible television producer who has come to ask her to appear on a talk show with a young pop star), the son visits his mother's teahouse, but being a fugitive from the law, chooses to move on without letting her know who he is.
The actress is talking as she slaps on her makeup, yells out orders, puts on her costume (characteristically, she has saved the male lead of Isaburo for herself), all the while nagging a poor Mr. Nakamura to please rehearse the role of the mother--a role the clearly tired old actor will be playing for the first time that night.
As she talks, we hear the probable reason she has such an affection for "Isaburo's Journey." She herself, she tells the visiting producer, because of her own dire circumstances at the time, had given her only infant son to the church orphanage about 19 years before.
By the second act, it is the young pop star himself who has replaced the television producer in the dressing room, and we can tell you only that, at this point, life begins to imitate art, provoking a cataclysmic ending to what has been up to now a mostly humorous play.
Inoue is a fine craftsman who lards the discourse with relevant minutiae and injects the sort of detail and asides that enrich context and enlarge character. But it is Watanabe, weaned on Tennessee Williams, Albee, Brecht and Durenmatt, who is the key to the two-hour show's success.
Her feistiness is unflagging and, as we witness in "Make-Up's" closing minutes, draws upon a wealth of first-class talent.
"Make-Up" will be presented tonight and Friday at 8 p.m. at Rancho Santiago College's Phillips Hall in Santa Ana, under the auspices of the Historical and Cultural Foundation of Orange County and the Orange County Japanese American Council. Performances will be in Japanese with English super-titles. Tickets are $15 general, $10 student. Call (714) 250-1957 for information.