High Art, Lowbrow

A historic visit from Japan's leading Kabuki troupe may not be as stuffy as you think.

Ripped from the headlines, it's a true story of possessive love and violent death, enacted by alluring actors in a glamorous setting. No, it's not Reversal of Fortune or the latest episode of Law & Order—it's a 300-year-old Japanese play that will be performed by Shochiku Grand Kabuki at the Paramount next weekend (7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 12; 206-292-ARTS or www.theparamount.com.

While the word "Kabuki" may conjure images of stiff, heavily powdered actors performing for an audience of aficionados, it may not be as esoteric as you think. Consider its origins: Devised by a female shrine dancer at the end of the 16th century, Kabuki was the bad-side-of-the-tracks cousin to Noh, an ancient, spare and elegant art form. It soon became so closely tied to prostitution that women were banned from performing. Men took up the women's roles, but some of Kabuki's lowbrow appeal remained.

"Its lusty roots are still there, though it's become more codified," says tour producer Jane Corddry Langill, director of international projects at Seattle's One Reel. "It came out of popular appetites for beauty, sex, and outrageousness. It was originally performed outdoors for large audiences. It has big colorful sets and a lot of set changes. It has big costumes, strong makeup, and a lot of musicians onstage."

Many of the original story lines—called sewamono—aimed for the lowest common denominator. Japanese audiences had a huge appetite for true crime stories and scandals, and by the early 18th century, playwrights competed to see who could dramatize the latest incident the most quickly. "They'd turn them out really fast," says Langill, "in a couple of days." So when two lovers committed suicide in Osaka, Japan, in May 1703, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (Sonezaki Shinju) was born. One of two plays to be performed in Seattle (the other a short, comic piece called Tied to a Pole), it is still revered centuries later. Its title is also as closely associated to its creator, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, as Romeo and Juliet is to Shakespeare.

The parallels between Shakespearean drama and Kabuki are numerous and striking, Langill notes. They first appeared at about the same time, both were considered somewhat morally dubious, and both presented men in women's roles (as Kabuki still does). There was very little traffic between the East and West at that time, so it's a mystery as to why they occurred simultaneously. But there's no mystery as to why they endured.

"Their themes are universal," Langill says. "Love and death are always big with people."

Shochiku Grand Kabuki's appearance is part of the Boeing Dreamliner Arts Festival, and if you're serious about getting Kabuki-fied, Dreamliner offers a Kabuki symposium June 11 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Costumers and makeup artists will transform one of the troupe's performers before your eyes, and you'll also hear (through translators) from lead actor Nakamura Ganjiro III. But reserve your spot (call 206-654-3226). Langill is "a little worried it'll be mobbed."

Ganjiro is the symposium's big draw. A designated Living National Treasure of Japan, he is considered the authority on playwright Chikamatsu and one of the country's leading onnagata actors (female role specialists). At the Paramount, he'll play Ohatsu—one of the play's star-crossed lovers—a role he has inhabited for 50 years.

In Japan, stage names are handed down, and the Grand Kabuki's current tour (to Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles) marks Ganjiro's final performances under his current name. In December of this year, he'll become Sakata Tojuro IV, a revered name that dates back to Chikamatsu's era. (Kind of the Kabuki equivalent of being issued the No. 3 jersey in Yankee Stadium, home of the Babe.)

So if you're unmoved by Kabuki's pageantry or even by its titillating tales, you might consider attending for this milestone alone. "It's a historic moment in the Kabuki world," says Langill.


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