“The cherry blossom festival is so popular this year.” That is the opening line of Kaidan Chibusa no Enoki (“The Ghost Tale of the Wet Nurse Tree”), from Japan’s Heisei Nakamura-za troupe, and how apt an introduction the sentence is: the production inaugurates another festival – the month-long Lincoln Center Festival – and the mention of cherry blossoms cues us that we are about to enter a world rooted in Japanese custom: kabuki. With humour, high spirits and precise movement, the production enthrals for two-and-a-half hours.
Having said that, I must also add that I could never stomach a steady diet of such a stylised world. I remain much too aware of the conventions in place: the bent-kneed stance of the onnagata female roles, taken by men; the tick-tock gait of the ruffian figures; the hearty exchanges of the big-group scenes.
The greatest pleasures of Kaidan occur when spontaneous energy bursts through the conventions. When the servant character Shosuke, for example, begins to imbibe and exclaims, “Too much sake!”, we feel real life, even within stylised bonds, breaking through.
Shosuke is one of three roles taken by Nakamura Kankuro, the others being the masterful painter Hishikawa Shigenobu, and Sanji, a thief. The Japanese among my Lincoln Center performance applauded eagerly at each of Kankuro’s entrances, and even more lustily at each of his quick costume changes, a kabuki speciality.
Kaidan was revived in 1990 by Kankuro’s father, Nakamura Kanzaburo XVIII, who died in 2012, and his son assumed the mantle gracefully. The play tells the story of how Shosuke is tricked by the villain, Namie, into becoming an accomplice to the murder of his master. In his ruthless scheming as well as in his violation of Shigenobu’s wife, Oseki, Nakamura Shido proves himself adept at a villain’s evil deeds.
The play’s dialogue is translated into English via earpieces, but once I grasped the basic narrative I found myself focusing less on the chat, more on the visual splendour. The shoji screens, the dragon paintings, even an onstage waterfall: nothing is excessive. The Rose Theater is not as vast a space as Avery Fisher Hall, where Heisei Nakamura-za performed in 2007, at its previous Lincoln Center Festival appearance. But everything is scaled just right here: large enough to frame the action, small enough to suggest delicate miniatures momentarily enlarged.