Theater archives

Deconstructing Kabuki, Nakamura’s Troupe Makes an Ancient Art Seem Postmodern


Kabuki, like other Japanese performing arts, began as a speedy, lively, vernacular show and slowed down over the centuries to become the stylized, hieratic form we imagine it to be today. The Heisei Nakamura troupe, apparently not content with that slow-moving grandeur, seems to have two goals for Kabuki: to restore its original sense of everyday reality, and to place it in a framework for a contemporary audience to whom that reality is a remote past. This is tricky, since even actors trained in the sublime physical demands of Kabuki can’t walk in two directions at once. But the act of being pulled two ways at once can produce great giddy fun, and so it is with the Nakamura version of The Summer Festival, a play from 1745 that tells the story of Danshichi, a fishmonger with a touchy sense of honor and a quick sword that create allies for him and churn up dire consequences for them with equal rapidity.

Full of what Victorians would call “sensation” scenes, the play begins with his release from prison and ends with his recapture for a far worse crime. Loud, jivey, and colloquial, the troupe gave a flamboyant account of it; samurai honor nearly seemed a viable concept, even when they mocked it with sight gags, or self-conscious shtick like having the actors stagily break character to applaud one another (as you read of Kabuki actors having done spontaneously in earlier eras). The acrobatic zest and showiness were great, but I missed the yugen (mystery) that the Noh playwright Zeami said all theater should have. Maybe the Nakamura-za will attain it when they slow down.