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

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Photograph: Stephanie Berger

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

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Photograph: Stephanie Berger

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

Kaidan Chibusa No Enoki (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree). Rose Theater (see Off Broadway). By Heisei Nakamura-za. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.

Kaidan Chibusa No Enoki: In brief

Japanese Kabuki troupe Heisei Nakamura-za returns to Lincoln Center Festival with a tale full of swordplay, spirits, double-crossing and thrills. A villainous samurai falls in love with a married woman, kills her husband and nearly murders her son. The stylized spectacle is led by Kabuki superstar Nakamura Kankuro VI, playing multiple roles with lightning-fast changes.

Kaidan Chibusa No Enoki: Theater review by David Cote

The Western reviewer who wants to say something meaningful about Kabuki faces high hurdles: the language barrier, obviously, but also the forbidding strangeness of this Japanese tradition, which has no parallel in Europe or America. Imagine a hybrid art that combines slapstick, abstract fight sequences and the dramaturgical and moral crudeness of melodrama, interspersed with clowns distracting the audience as stagehands install elaborate scenery. If you smashed Elizabethan tragedy into American vaudeville and spliced in pro wrestling, you might come close. In the end, what can you do but lamely tautologize: Kabuki is Kabuki.

Lincoln Center Festival has been devoted to one troupe in particular: Tokyo’s Nakamura-za, which makes its third visit to the city in a decade with Kaidan Chibusa No Enoki (The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree), an epic tragicomedy of brutal desire, artistic idealism, loyalty and revenge. The play dates from 1889 and underwent various changes in 1915, when the tradition of one actor switching furiously between three roles was established. Kaidan Chibusa No Enoki was revived in 1990 by Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII (1955–2012) the late leader of Nakamura-za. Now his son, Nakamura Kankuro, takes on the triple role of Hishikawa Shigenobu (a master painter), Shōsuke (his servant) and Uwabami no Sanji (a villainous thief).

There is no shortage of shocks to keep you leaning forward, including the sadistic rape of Shigenobu’s wife, Oseki (played by Nakamura Shichinosuke in the all-male ensemble), the attempted murder of her son (twice!) and the nighttime assassination of saintly Shigenobu by covetous Isogai Namie (Nakamura Shido, fearsome in a whiteface rictus). What may be unusual for New York audiences is the mix of gravitas and goofiness in which this unfolds. The exaggerated facial expressions, the outlandish poses that call to mind Edo-period drawings, the unapologetic ham acting and appeals to sentiment—it all resolves itself gracefully without tipping into grotesque nihilism or twee moralizing. At the same time, the show is never truly beautiful or uplifting—which I suspect is part of its appeal. For centuries, Kabuki has been the people’s theater, a cultural response to the stately, aristocratic minimalism of Nō. If it seems overstuffed, trivial and morally incoherent, well, so is life.

Okay, but how good is it? Judging the quality of individual performances and the overall mise en scène (no director is credited) is tricky, since I’m no connoisseur. Measuring the effectiveness of a particular mie (rotating head on neck then freezing the face in an extreme expression) is not feasible for a writer more used to linear plots and naturalistic acting. But, hey: the show is tremendous fun, visually dynamic (knife fight under a waterfall!) and the seasoned, physically accomplished actors give it their all. Kankuro’s quick changes (using body doubles and contrived concealments) is truly breathtaking, like watching a CGI figure morphing before your eyes. In a single, contrastingly static role, Shido is the perfect villain, charming in a homicidal way.

There are scenery changes that take a bit too long and the clowning is loose and leaky, but all is forgiven by the final showdown at the titular Wet Nurse Tree. The plant in question secretes restoring milk to ailing pilgrims, and this seriously wacky jolt of Kabuki could exert a similarly invigorating power on jaded playgoers.—Theater review by David Cote

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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