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History in Motion

Theater / dance review: The Grand Kabuki of Japan uses purposeful dialogue to drive its visual feast.


From Sophocles' "Philoctetes" to Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" and beyond, a number of very unusual classic dramas look at the injustices of society through the eyes of the exile--heaping up bitter ironies until the desperate isolation of the dispossessed seems preferable to any involvement with the corruption they left behind.

Originally written in 1719 for the puppet theater, Chikamatsu Monzaemon's "Shunkan" concentrates this bitterness with such unwavering mastery that the antique stagecraft and florid acting style of the Grand Kabuki of Japan doesn't essentially lighten or soften the play but rather place it in a richly textured historical frame.

One of Japan's greatest performing institutions, the Grand Kabuki first presented "Shunkan" in Los Angeles 17 years ago at the Shrine Auditorium in a production starring Nakamura Tomijuro V. On Thursday, the company showcased Nakamura Kichiemon II in both "Shunkan" and a comic curtain-raiser, "Tsuri Onna," on the opening night of a five-performance engagement at the Wiltern Theatre.

Those who expect Kabuki to live up to its reputation for glorious excess should find the engagement educational. Yes, each play does incorporate dance, pantomime, singing, declamatory acting and instrumental music--along with such Kabuki specialties as stylized female impersonation. (Kabuki is traditionally an all-male idiom.) However, the plots, relationships and themes develop primarily through dialogue in a purposeful but markedly unhurried manner.

Consequently, the simultaneous-translation headsets provided with each ticket prove a necessity since even the farcical "Tsuri Onna," in which a feudal lord and his servant snare mates with a fishing pole, holds layers of meaning easy to miss. Happily, the disarming Faubion Bowers again provides an English equivalent of the texts on this tour plus witty insights into Kabuki lore that enrich the performing experience.

As he points out, "Shunkan" has come to Los Angeles without the revolving stage needed for its final scenic transformation--but the image of the title character marooned on a rock high above stylized waves still emerges with undiminished emotional force in the performance by Kichiemon. (Like popes, Kabuki stars are known by their given names, officially awarded them as a measure of their artistry.)

Kichiemon begins "Shunkan" in low-key quasi-naturalism, trying to cook seaweed in his island hut and greeting his fellow exiles with touching formality, as if they were still at court. Before long, however, as the character's deepest hopes become aroused and then destroyed, a series of hoarse, long-held screams of despair are torn from his throat and embellished in the poignant chanted narration of the great Takemoto Kiyotayu. . Adding to these superb cadenzas of grief: the lament of the abused island girl Chidori (Nakamura Matsue) in an elaborate solo midway through the play.

Playing emissaries from the court, the thoughtful Sawamura Sojuro IX personifies compassion and the fierce Ichikawa Sadanji IV, embodies blunt cruelty, forcing Shunkan to extremes--indeed to the edge of madness. Throughout, Kichiemon emphasizes the physical fragility of a defenseless old man caught between unforgiving enemies and implacable nature.

In contrast, "Tsuri Onna" finds him overwhelmingly robust as the unlikely bride chosen by fate for the servant Tarokaja. Written by Kawatake Mokuami in 1902 but based on a comedy created centuries earlier, the play makes fun of truisms about love--the highlight being a dance in which Tarokaja tries unsuccessfully to evade his amorous new wife.

Kichiemon and the diminutive Nakamura Kasho III give every pratfall in this duet a delectable delicacy: the tiniest nudge from the former causing the latter to sprawl halfway across the stage as if violently struck by a sumo champion if not Godzilla himself. As Tarokaja's lord, Sojuro adds to the fun by being simultaneously pompous and brainless--besides moving expertly in those long, long formal trousers that trail on the floor yards behind the wearer's feet.

Platoons of subsidiary actors, chanters, musicians and stagehands (dressed in black to be officially invisible) give these small-scale plays an enhanced theatricality. It isn't called Grand Kabuki for nothing, even if this particular tour puts its emphasis on dramaturgy and acting rather than multidisciplinary spectacle, minimizing the ka (song) and bu (dance), perhaps, but still leaving the ki (skill) eminently satisfying.

* Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan continues at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd. (at Western). Today, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Tickets: $15-$100. [310] 825-2101.

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