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THE ARTS | THEATER REVIEW

Love and death conquer all

Formal beauty abounds as Kabuki master Ganjiro enacts a tragic tale.

June 23, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Created by a dancing hooker, Grand Kabuki has always been obsessed with sex for money. Like tango, it was born disreputable but was destined to become the symbol of a national culture. And unlike those Japanese forms of dance theater that teach you that the pleasures of this world are an illusion, Kabuki proclaims that the pleasures of this world are everything. Lose them and you might as well leave.

The many, many prostitutes and courtesans who help give Kabuki plays their fabled erotic flavor also dramatize how powerless women in general could be in pre-modern Japanese society -- property to be bought and sold. And in Chikamatsu Monzaemon's innovative 1703 puppet drama, "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," financial imperatives involving a misplaced dowry make a young male clerk just as vulnerable.

Performed by the Chikamatsu-za division of the all-male Grand Kabuki, this three-scene meditation on money-as-fate came to the Cerritos Center on Tuesday as part of celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center.

You could argue that the original puppet version (performed locally by Bunraku masters in 1988) has a greater cumulative intensity, with black-clad puppeteers looming over the helpless lovers, hustling them to their doom -- and chanters speaking for them too.

However, Uno Nobuo's vintage Kabuki dramatization has the advantage of deluxe casting in Cerritos: Living National Treasure Nakamura Ganjiro III as the perpetually woebegone courtesan Ohatsu and Ganjiro's son, Nakamura Kanjaku V, as her luckless lover, Tokubei. Together, they give the play's songlike wails of grief and dance-like friezes of devotion as much formal beauty as emotional fervor.

Headsets are available to provide simultaneous translation, but the literal meaning of the words doesn't begin to suggest the magical way that Ganjiro, Kanjaku and the chanters extend syllables and, particularly, vowels into flourishes of feeling. So many scenes are essentially tableaux that this energetic vocal attack becomes the key to the sustained poignancy of the performance, whether or not you speak Japanese.

The first scene focuses on Tokubei's worsening cash crunch and eventual humiliation by a false friend (Nakamura Kikaku II). Here we see Kanjaku's subtlety and ability to portray shifting emotional colors as his character becomes unmanned by calamity, staggering along the runway that leads from the stage and collapsing under the weight of an accusation.

Scene 2 finds the action surging around Ohatsu as she learns the worst and resolves to join a love-death pact. Ganjiro is placed on the very front of the stage here, with everyone behind him, so that our attention goes directly to the reactions passing across that great, mask-like, white-painted face and through that artificially high but supremely expressive voice.

The elaborate conventions of Japanese female impersonation once seemed to turn women into an alien species. However, recent Western forays into extreme gender stylization such as Gael Garcia Bernal's drag cabaret act in the film "Bad Education" have arguably out-Kabukied Kabuki. By comparison, Ganjiro looks like the girl next door -- albeit a girl robed in overlapping layers of richly embroidered scarlet, orange, purple and pale yellow.

A lyric cadenza of despair and resignation performed in the most atmospheric of Nagasaka Genko's settings, the last scene mixes the lovers' voices with offstage prayers, the chanters' texts and the tolling of bells. Spare choreography by Katsumi Yoshiyuki commemorates undying love in a series of sculptural poses.

Nothing happens (the curtain falls just before the action that the play's title foretells), but time stops and we feel everything end.

That ought to be enough -- but Grand Kabuki adds curtain calls (a transplanted Western tradition) displaying Ganjiro's irrepressible joie de vivre, plus a comic curtain-raiser featuring Kanjaku.

In "Ayatsuri Sambaso," he's a marionette controlled by Nakamura Gannosuke, periodically becoming awkwardly tangled in his (invisible) strings.

Fifteen accomplished chanters and musicians play on a dais against the back wall, but Kanjaku is the whole show: lumpen, lifeless, moving brilliantly, but only when Gannosuke pulls the strings.

The choreography by Fujima Kanjuro gives you a sense of the formal blessings in the traditional harvest-rituals that became celebratory Noh pieces -- but also the same pleasures you get from the deliberately klutzy doll dances in "Coppelia," "The Nutcracker," "Petrushka" and other ballet classics.

If "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki" made history by proving that puppets could be as deeply human as actors, "Ayatsuri Sambaso" confirms that actors can be as delightfully brainless as puppets -- if they leave their humanity in the dressing room.

*

Grand Kabuki

Where: Cerritos Center, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos

When: 8 p.m. today and Friday

Price: $65 to $125

Info: (800) 300-4345,

(213) 680-3700 or www.cerritoscenter.com

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