Playing the fearless leader of a marauding gang, Stacie Hirsch screws up her face into a mask of comic ferocity. Her lips—a bright red pucker painted onto a background of white—twist like telephone wire. Her eyebrows—wrought-iron curlicues drawn onto her forehead—arch so high they threaten to fly off into space. Her eyes actually seem to roll in opposite directions. She widens her stance, then fixes it in a rigid, statuesque posture, proclaiming, “I am the notorious thief”—thumping drumbeat—”Nippon Daemon!” Then she takes a deliberate, delicious drag of a cigarette and blows out a languorous stream of smoke.
Kabuki may be the hammiest theatrical form ever invented. Performers strike bravura poses—or mie—again and again as they declare themselves, and they repeatedly beg other characters, “Please! Listen to my story!” as they launch into tear-jerking monologues. There are even interludes when characters discuss their tastes in theater, and praise their favorite actors—themselves. Meanwhile, the intricate plots of murder, mayhem, suicide, robbery, romance, and the revelation of long-lost relatives keep the action hurtling forward. Periodic full-scale fight scenes keep the actors hurtling, too.
All these pop virtues open Kabuki to contemporary adaptation, particularly because, paradoxically, the more one goes for exaggeration, anachronism, and campy high-action, the more faithful one is to the gritty origins of the form. Beginning around 1600 and flourishing as a plebeian entertainment until the early 20th century, Kabuki was down-and-dirty urban theater whose scripts were in constant flux and whose bawdy, blustering performances were a rebuke to the stately classicism of Noh drama. Think of it as the progenitor of Japanimation. The name Kabuki means unorthodox or off-center or—perhaps best for describing Jim Simpson’s frolicking adaptation of Benten Kozo—twisted. That in recent decades Kabuki has become primarily the holy stuff of twice-a-decade visits to Lincoln Center only makes Simpson’s artful pandering to the groundlings all the more welcome.
One of some 400 plays cranked out by Kawatake Mokuami in the mid 1800s, Benten Kozo follows a band of gangsters through a spate of swindling escapades too numerous and convoluted to recount. Suffice it to say that they involve disguise, abduction, female impersonation, beheading, and the endless pursuit of a precious incense case. All the while, the play ruminates on the distortions of materialism and the valor of a “chivalrous thief” who robs only from the mega-rich.
Simpson stages the shenanigans with a shrewd sense of theatrical rhythm (enabled by Kyle Chepulis’s ingenious, spare set design) and a subtle feel for when going too far has gone far enough. The faux Bruce Lee fight sequences are at once skillful and satirical, inspiring genuine gasps from the audience as well as giggling
Batman-style shouts of “oof!” and “pow!” When the princess flings herself off a cliff, then finds that she is still alive and throws herself into the river, the scene is both hilarious and disturbing. Throughout the play, a first-rate trio of percussion, bass, and strings not only underscores the action, but talks back to it as well.
Only some of the 23 actors in the cast—the Furballs, the Bat Theatre’s young resident company—can deliver on all the levels Simpson has going. Hirsch stands out, shifting from nonchalance to outrage with a commanding ease. As one of her thugs, Daniel Gurian is as scary as he is ridiculous. And playing the princess, Vivian Bang manages to comment on her girlie self-deprecation while also milking it for sympathy. In a tour de force of lounge singer as choral commentator, Angela Tweed croons the first act to a climactic close. But if others in the cast sometimes sound a single note or push their vocal playfulness past the point of comprehension, they still feed the production’s high energy. Like cherry blossoms in full bloom—one of the play’s repeated sappy images—Simpson’s Benten Kozo blares at full blast, giving its all in the brief moment that it springs to life onstage.
If Kabuki invites contemporary tinkering, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1836) seems to resist it. The elliptical writing and epic structure give the play an openness that is as unsettling as its subject: a simple, manic soldier is driven to murdering his lover. Though Büchner clearly shows social forces stacking up against his protagonist, Woyzeck’s violent, misogynous act re mains as mysterious as it is inevitable.
Jeff Cohen’s earnest adaptation flattens the original’s free-floating despair into a clear social scourge: blatant racism. His Woyzeck—named Jackson—is a black private at an army base in Alabama in 1960, the major who takes up with his girlfriend is a hunky white guy whose cronies torment and later lynch Jackson. The doctor who experiments on him is a bumbling white buffoon too cartoonlike to evoke the horror of Tuskegee. Though blues and jazz tunes beautifully rendered by virtuoso guitarist Steve Bargonetti and heart-tugging singer Queen Esther link the fragmentary scenes, the production lacks forward drive and stylistic coherence. In recent years, Cohen has successfully adapted and directed Chekhov and Euripides, but Büchner slips away from his exacting grasp.