20 January 2018

Two Kabuki Reviews (2014)

[As readers of Rick On Theater may know, I’m a big fan of Kabuki, one of the traditional theater forms of Japan.  I’ve blogged on it a couple of times in the years I’ve edited this blog: “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” posted on 1 November 2010, and “Grand Kabuki (July 1985),” 6 November 2011; Kabuki has also made an appearance on other posts, most prominently “Theater and Computers,” 5 December 2010.  A little over three years ago, the Heisei Nakamura-za of Tokyo came to New York City with the 19th-century play The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree, based on a story by Sanyutei Encho.  Below are two reviews of that production at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center (7-12 July 2014).]

by Charles Isherwood

[Isherwood’s review appeared in the New York Times’ “Arts” section on 9 July 2014.  (The reviewer has since left the paper.)]

A Kabuki Drama at the Lincoln Center Festival

“Protect the Prada!”

That’s an admonition you might expect to hear screeched over a boozy lunch on the Upper East Side, when a glass of cabernet takes a fall. Instead, it’s being offered with a smile by a genial Japanese actor in a kimono in the Kabuki drama being presented as the opening night offering of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. He offers the advice while passing out plastic ponchos to the first few rows of audience members, who are soon to be soaked by the overflow of the onstage waterfall that is one of the many lively effects in this splendidly entertaining show, “Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki,” which translates (rather awkwardly) as “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.”

Presented by the venerable Heisei Nakamura-za company, a theater whose roots date back several centuries, the production manages the nifty feat of blending Kabuki tradition with contemporary innovation. Despite the language barrier (headphones provide simultaneous translation), the resulting show, at the Rose Theater, easily draws us into an elaborate melodrama about a samurai turned artist, his loving wife, the evil usurper who seduces her and seeks to kill him, and, well, lots more.

Although that waterfall in the second act is indeed a bit of a marvel, the most jaw-dropping spectacle on view is the quick-change performance of Nakamura Kankuro, who plays three major roles. He’s Hishikawa Shigenobu, the painter who falls victim to his enemy’s machinations, and later returns as a ghost; Shosuke, Shigenobu’s loyal if addlepated servant, who is blackmailed by the villain into betraying his master; and Uwabami no Sanji, a rogue allied with the villain but with his own ambitions.

Mr. Nakamura, the eldest son of a revered Kabuki actor who died in 2012 (he shares his name, as is traditional), differentiates the roles with the natural versatility of a Western actor of similar wide-ranging gifts. And yet central to the thrill of his performance is recognizing when he has shifted from one role to another, often in the blink of an eye, and usually when two of the characters are sharing a scene. The audience, primed to the appeal of these seemingly miraculous changes, applauds each of them as if it were a burst of fireworks.

To cite just one example, during a climactic scene in which Shosuke enters a temple to announce the grievous news that Shigenobu has been killed (he knows because he was an accomplice), his news is laughed off, because the monks insist that Shigenobu is resting. Soon Shosuke has disappeared into a crowd and, within seconds, Shigenobu (or is it his ghost?) stands before us, ready to put the crowning touches on a painting. The marvel of Mr. Nakamura’s performance, aside from the charm of his characterizations (particularly the comically put-upon Shosuke), resides in these illusions, which are all the more impressive given the elaborate kimonos, wigs and makeup that define each of his three characters. At one point during a recent performance, Mr. Nakamura even switched roles as two of his characters collided in one of the theater’s aisles, just a few feet away from me. I still couldn’t tell you exactly how the feat was performed.

But Mr. Nakamura’s bravura performance is just one of the many rewards of the show, which hews to the stylistic hallmarks of traditional Kabuki but also features interludes in which minor players amble among the audience members, trading comical small talk in English (“One actor, three parts — amazing!”) and joshing with them (“Next time, upgrade,” one says to the viewers in the cheaper seats), while tapping away at their smartphones. The seamless manner in which classical style and contemporary humor are blended speaks to the smart stewardship of Mr. Nakamura, who inherited the reins after his father’s death.

Mr. Nakamura’s brother, Nakamura Shichinosuke, portrays the onnagata role (a woman’s part played by a man) of Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, imbuing her with demure dignity and pathos, her downcast eyes almost always shying away from meeting those of others. He moves with a silky grace, and under the stark white makeup and elaborate black wig can scarcely be recognized as a man. The other major role, of the archvillain Namie, is imposingly filled by Nakamura Shido, a superb actor firmly in the Kabuki tradition, his slanting black eyebrows signifying his malign intent, his mouth a thin slash of menace.

At moments of highest drama, signified by the clapping of wooden blocks by musicians at the side of the stage, the actors strike classical poses that they accentuate with exaggerated repetitions or arch gestures. These, too, are cheered by knowing audience members as beloved set pieces of the genre, and by the end of the show, you may find yourself happily applauding them, too.

It is probably advisable to read the synopsis before the play begins, if only to familiarize yourself with the general flow of the story. Still, this could make your head spin, as the convolutions appear far more tortuous when reduced to prose than when enacted onstage. If you find yourself bewildered trying to track the characters and their relationships in the early going, when a subplot about the previous dark deeds of Namie, performed under another name, are described, just wait; things will sort themselves out pretty clearly.

But even should you get lost for a while in the mechanics of the narrative, there are visual pleasures to salve your confusion. The production’s design, relying heavily on beautifully painted flats, is both sumptuous and elegantly simple. Scenes depicting various settings — Shigenobu’s household, a restaurant, a temple, that flowing waterfall and the titular tree — are separated by the ceremonial drawing across the stage of a huge curtain painted in stripes of black, white and dark red that is itself an eye-pleasing delight.

The Lincoln Center Festival’s theatrical offerings this year are skimpy: just this production, which runs through Saturday, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, to be presented in August, after the festival traditionally ends, and not in the vicinity of Lincoln Center but at City Center. (Go figure.) But the pleasures of the Heisei Nakamura-za company, returning for the third time, are such that this production, with its high theatricality, low comedy, subtle musical accompaniment, choral interludes and lush designs, can almost be regarded as a festival in itself.

Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki  (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree)

Based on a solo narrative created by Sanyutei Encho, sets and costumes based on traditional design; lighting by Ikeda Tomoya; sound by Naito Hiroshi. A Heisei Nakamura-za production, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, Boo Froebel, producer. At the Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall,  60th Street and Broadway (Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle). 7–12 July 2014. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Performed in Japanese, with English translation via headset.

WITH: Nakamura Kankuro (Hishikawa Shigenobu/Shosuke/Uwabami no Sanji), Nakamura Shido (Isogai Namie), Nakamura Shichinosuke (Oseki), Kataoka Kamezo (Matsui Saburo/Unkai), Nakamura Kannojo (Yorozuya Shinbei), Nakamura Sanzaemon (Senjyu Shigezaemon), Nakamura Kosaburo (Takeroku), Nakamura Choshi (Okiku/Otatsu) and Sawamura Kunihisa (Ohana).

*  *  *  *
by Joan Acocella

[This review appeared in the New Yorker on 28 July 2014.  Joan Acocella has written for the New Yorker, reviewing dance and books, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998.]

For people accustomed to the cooler precincts of modernist and postmodernist art, it is often a joy to reëncounter older, messier forms of theatre, with coincidences and murders and the like. Therefore, when I arrived at the Rose Theatre for “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree,” the Kabuki company Heisei Nakamura-za’s contribution to the Lincoln Center Festival, I was not surprised to find the lobby packed with people spending too much money at the snack bar and looking as though they were going to a soccer game.

Here, with considerable abridgment, is what happens in “The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree.” The distinguished painter Shigenobu and his wife, Oseki, have a new baby boy. Hanging around the neighborhood is a self-styled samurai, Namie, wearing a hat the size of a washtub, with a nasty smirk on his face. Shigenobu announces that he’s leaving town to create a dragon painting for a famous temple. Incredibly, he entrusts the care of his wife and son to Namie. The minute he’s gone, Namie plies the family servant, Shosuke, with drink and persuades him to kill his master. On the day that Shigenobu is to finish the painting, a crowd gathers at the temple. Shigenobu enters, looking peculiar. He fills in the final detail, the dragon’s eyes. Then he mounts the altar and—poof!—he vanishes. Shosuke has carried out his assignment: Shigenobu has become a ghost. Namie now persuades Oseki to marry him, but he’d prefer not to be encumbered with the child, so he tells Shosuke to take him to a waterfall and drown him. Once Shosuke leaves, Namie instructs his henchman, Sanji, to follow the servant and kill him after he has killed the baby.

By now, it’s clear that the primary virtue of “The Wet Nurse Tree” is not its plot, which you can barely follow. Another confounding factor is that the play is full of quick-changes. Nakamura Kankuro VI, the thirty-two-year-old star of the show (and a co-director of the troupe), plays three roles—Shigenobu, Shosuke, and Sanji—and much of the audience’s pleasure derives from his shape-shifting from one role to another within a given scene. Sometimes it’s as if Kankuro can’t walk behind a tree as one character without emerging on the other side as another. Remember when Shigenobu, or what looked like him, disappeared into the altar? Well, an instant afterward another man appeared in an adjoining room of the temple. “Sanji!” the people there cried. “We didn’t notice you here before!” That’s because he wasn’t there before.

At the waterfall (a real one—spectators in the front rows were given raincoats), Shosuke and Sanji battle to the death. While Kankuro plays one man, the other may be played by a second actor, who keeps his face averted. Or we are shown a big bush in which he is supposedly hiding. Then Kankuro switches. And, the minute the baby is tossed into the water, the actor’s third persona rejoins us. Shigenobu’s ghost, white-faced and dire, appears at the top of the waterfall, looking like Zeus, the bolt-thrower. He demands his son, who is still alive, and gets him. You look from one to the next of the three characters and ask yourself which of these costumes has Kankuro in it, and how long that situation is going to last.

The virtuosity is breathtaking: not just the speed of the costume changes (how do they switch the wigs so fast?) but the acting skills, the fact that Kankuro can speak like a servant one moment and like an immortal the next. It’s more than speaking, though. Much Kabuki movement is a kind of dance, rowdy or ceremonious or whatever is required. The actors hitch up their robes to show you what their legs are doing.

The virtuosity is not just a thrill in itself; it is the motor of comedy. Compared with some other forms of Japanese theatre—Noh, for example—Kabuki had humble beginnings. It was made by common people for common people. The story goes that in the early years of the seventeenth century a certain “shrine maiden,” Okuni, had a female troupe that gathered on a dry riverbed in Kyoto and staged shows described as “kabuku”—which, according to Heisei Nakamura-za’s program notes, is an archaic word meaning “tilted” but also implying “strange” or, perhaps, “risqué.”

These shows, which were hugely popular, were soon banned, as, later, were similar theatricals using boys as actors. It seems that both groups offered sexual services as well as dramatic entertainments, a typical pairing in vernacular theatre of the time. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Kabuki, with rare exceptions, has been performed only by adult males, handing down their skills from father to son. (The Nakamura Kabuki dynasty is nineteen generations old.) Women are played by onnagata, men who specialize in female roles. Oseki, Shigenobu’s wife, is played, with porcelain delicacy, by Nakamura Shichinosuke II, Kankuro’s younger brother, who directs the company with him.

Heisei Nakamura-za does not perform on riverbeds, but it does preserve something of Kabuki’s populist origins. According to the press release, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, the father of Kankuro and Shichinosuke, and the head of the troupe until his bitterly mourned death, from cancer, a year and a half ago (he was only fifty-seven), said that one of his goals was to strengthen “Kabuki’s happy-go-lucky, slapstick, naughty quality.” Hence, I believe, the disorderly plots and the razor-sharp stagecraft. Kanzaburo wanted to restore to Japanese audiences a comedy of awe and hilarity, a picture of life as variety and surprise. The closest analogy in American art is probably the Saturday-night movie. It is not irrelevant here that Kabuki is a commercial enterprise. Other forms of Japanese theatre, such as Noh and Bunraku, subsist on government funding. Kabuki lives on ticket sales.

It seems to me that Kanzaburo may have been a little too modern-minded: he inserted a lot of meta-theatre into his work. In this production of “The Wet Nurse Tree,” which is his (the play began its life as a story in a Tokyo newspaper, in 1889), a rather sinister tale is interrupted again and again, between scenes, by a bunch of rowdies coming out and telling us one thing or another. They’re the ones who distribute the raincoats, and they come back with mops and pails after the waterfall episode. They refer to the review—a favorable one—that they got in the Times. They express bewilderment over the plot of the play. “Plus, everyone’s name starts with an ‘S,’ ” one of them says. (In case you think Namie is an exception, it’s an alias. The character’s real name is Sasashige.)

These guys were cute, but I tired of them. I also think that Kanzaburo may have gone too far in ramping up the slapstick. When Shosuke and Sanji were engaged in what was supposed to be mortal combat, they looked a lot like a couple of kids having a water fight in a swimming pool. Again, it was fun for a while, but not for as long as it lasted, and, if fun was what this episode was about, how do you explain that scary ghost sitting at the top of the waterfall?

Still, I don’t feel quite right about second-guessing a man who was trying to keep a four-hundred-year-old theatrical form alive as a commercial enterprise. Also, he made wonderfully subtle decisions at certain points—the end, for example. The villainous Namie, of course, has to be eliminated (to our disgust, he is still married to the nice Oseki), but the person who gets to do the deed is Shigenobu’s child—who is now nine years old—and he uses a pretty silver sword that looks like something out of “The Nutcracker.” Down goes Namie, and what seems to be a flame-shaped holograph appears in the air—obviously Shigenobu’s spirit, avenged at last, and proud of his son. Everything here is just right: dignified and ritualistic—a dance—but also a little sweet, a little funny. 

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