Grand Kabuki, Grand Style

In Japan, families pack box lunches to attend kabuki performances with the same sort of fervor shown by American parents who dress their little girls up in layers of crinolines for The Nutcracker. In both cases, tradition is being honored. But where the ballet's tradition is accessible on more than one continent, the 400-year-old tradition of kabuki, Japanese theater that includes wildly beautiful costumes, elaborate makeup, stomping and singing, has tended to stick close to home.

Indeed, the last time the Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan visited the United States was 1979. This week, though, the 39-member company is hitting Houston as part of a tour that includes only four American cities (Dallas, Los Angeles and Berkeley are the others). The company includes members from several of Japan's acting dynasties, who create part of kabuki's mysterious allure: kabuki roles are handed down through generations by actors noted for their flair for embodying a particular character. Performing in the newly sound-paneled Jones Hall, the company will do two plays, Tsuri Onna and Shunkan.

Though some kabuki performances can last 12 hours, neither Tsuri Onna nor Shunkan are the marathon-length plays one might find in Japan. Rather, Tsuri Onna (also known as Fishing for a Wife) is a comedy about a nobleman's search for a bride. His methods and the story's events will seem familiar to fairy tale fans: fishing rods are used to reel in women, both beautiful and ugly, and those wives are switched around to the delight or dismay of their suitors. Shunkan, on the other hand, is a tragedy named for the play's main character. Decidedly Greek in form, the play follows Shunkan and his noble exiles, who were driven to a remote island from their homeland for treason. Their rescue, a year into exile, is complicated by Shunkan's empathy for another nobleman's island bride.

Paying too much attention to plot, though, would be a mistake. In keeping with the art form's Eastern sensibility, kabuki is made up of multiple strands -- there isn't a central element around which everything else revolves. Instead, all the components are equally important and crucial for actors to study. For seasoned kabuki audiences, movement, particularly a sensual and swaying pigeon-toed walk, along with open palm gesturing, conveys specific meaning. The code is similar to the mime used in classical ballet, in which a dancer may point to her ring finger to indicate an engagement. But in kabuki, the idiom of expression is much more sophisticated. Mood, status and sexual availability are communicated by a certain look, a shoulder roll or a low bow. A gesture always has the same meaning, but its combination with other gestures may change the tone from angry to playful. A good kabuki actor has the same liquid spontaneity of a jack-in-the-box; what appears at first to be a bouncy, giggling clown can turn to dark evil, or seductive charm, in nanoseconds.

Close in form to Elizabethan theater, kabuki relies on gestural movement, song and dialogue to tell stories that have something to do with a range of stock characters: courtesan, maiden, little girl, ugly woman, warrior, prince and page. Kabuki relies little on stage setting and more on the actors' costuming and makeup. Major roles often require a special stagehand who discreetly kneels behind a performer, peeling off 60 pounds of silk chiffon costuming at key moments in the plot or character development, especially during moments of revealed identity.

Started in a dry riverbed in 1603 by a woman rumored to have been a courtesan, kabuki has been historically referred to as a theater of the people. Women, however, were banned from the Japanese stage in 1629, and since then, male actors have played all female roles in kabuki. That tradition has engendered a kabuki master philosophy: women cannot play women because their femininity is their very essence, though ironically, men obviously play men. The persistent idea of a character's "essence" -- the notion that representation of an ideal is the essence of all kabuki -- is part of the reason women never returned to the kabuki stage (another probably has something to do with the origin of early actresses, nearly all of whom were prostitutes). Where Western theater often draws on an actor's personal traits, kabuki is designed to achieve a stylized, even stereotypical form. Characters are types, but types that rise to a highly specialized level.

In an attempt to explain some of these subtleties, the Society for the Performing Arts, which is the presenting organization for the Grand Kabuki Theater, last week brought in America's foremost kabuki expert, Leonard Pronko of Pomona College, to teach a kabuki master class at the University of Houston. On a stage full of eager college students, Pronko and his assistant, Takao Tomono, walked dancers through a kabuki sequence. Kabuki movement demands a low center of gravity, and several students struggled with a new interpretation of sexiness: hips and knees aligned, back straightened and gentle, never above the elbow hand movements. As Pronko demonstrated the subtle come-hither glance of a shy maiden, though, the students cheered his delicacy and aptness.

In a similarly instructive vein, and to aid the timid, at the Grand Kabuki Theater's performances, SPA will provide simultaneous commentary through earpieces. Often, the best approach to something as exotic as kabuki is to discard the common expectation that one goes to theater to understand a story. Kabuki has story, but it also has something far more interesting for audiences entrenched in flavor-of-the-week drama -- it has true style.

The Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan performs Tuesday, September 10, and Wednesday, September 11, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-1911.

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Megan Halverson