by Margaret Croyden

The Lincoln Center Festival 2007

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

To attend the Lincoln Center Festival each year is always a pleasure. The productions presented are unavailable on Broadway or any other venue. And they always begin when the Broadway season closes, so we can enjoy another month of theater going. This year the Festival director, Nigel Redden, concentrated mostly on international productions--a welcome gift. For rarely do we see foreign companies in New York. Not many people travel to Japan, China, or Russia to catch the theater, countries well represented this time.

The Russians opened with the Kirov Opera's production of Wagner's "Ring" conducted by the famous Valery Gergiev: the Chinese came with the Shen Wei Dances and some works from the Beijung opera repertoire; Japan showed two works from the Kabuki repertory led by its master, Nakamaura Kanzaburo XVIII, and the great Robert Wilson came with "Les Fables de la Fontaine," performed by the Comedie Francaise. (More on Wilson another time).
The Kabuki's first play, "Hokaibo" staring Nakamaura Kanzaburo was surprising. I had seen the Kabuki in Japan years ago and remembered their classical stylization, their extraordinary mise en scene and gorgeous costumes, and the beautiful onnagatas (men playing women). But "Hokaibo" turned out to be a low comic farce (performed in a modified Kabuki style) that sometimes resembled a common boulevard play. Kabuki never stuck me as comical. So that was something new.

The plot, like many Kabuki pieces, was virtually incomprehensible (at least to foreigners). The earphones with the English translations did not help; they were actually a hinderance; they constantly fell off one's ear, so that it took a lot of work to follow the script. The story centered on clever rouge, a schemer, a liar, a cheat, and a thief, but with his wit and cunning he charms everyone he encounters (a long list of characters, not easily identifiable). In the end this "bad man" receives his just punishment. Nakamaura in the lead is an excellent faceur and acts with gusto, energy, and charm; his villain was difficult to dislike. In fact the audience loved him. The Kabuki story line and the low comedy attempts were less important than the uncommon visual effects--the knockout costumes, the brilliant lighting, and the careful mise en scene. Of special interest were the Onnagatas. With their amazing technique one is convinced that they are in fact women. Their voice, lowered several octaves, is plainly female; so are their hand movements, the placements of their legs and hips, their stance, their walk and their white painted faces--all plainly feminine. As they move about the stage with a graceful daintiness and musicality, they often dominate the production. In fact, some onnagatas have themselves become superstars and have a huge following.

The play depended on the usual comic aspects: mistaken identities, multiply incidents, prate falls and Nakamaura delivering some of the dialogue in English. Not only was his accent too thick to understand, but it seemed a deliberate effort to cater to what he thought was American taste --an unnecessary effort. Nevertheless the audience loved him and they loved the show; they laughed, shouted, and applauded. (Many people in the audience were Japanese).

Clearly the director wanted to upgrade the ancient Kabuki and this he accomplished. The audience was satisfied, but I thought it was a pity that what they do best--classical stylization-- was relegated to the last act, a mere half-hour. Which was beautiful. The musicians sat on the stage in their colorful costumes, all in one line, instruments in hand, playing their music. Nakamura, the lead in the first part was the center here as well. Now he demonstrated his true mastery of the Kabuki. With thunderous sounds and stunning movements, he conjured up a lion, a spirit, a samurai. Despite the tumultuous action, Nakamaura's speech, gaze, stance and persona achieved a certain mysterious stillness on stage. And that was indeed unique.
Clearly the Kabuki, despite some disappointment, was compelling no matter what they offered. Which in retrospect was plenty.

MARGARET CROYDEN's recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


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