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Experiments in American Kabuki: Three Performances in the Pacific Northwest Laurence Kominz With such titles as Kabuki Bacchae or Kabuki Faust, producers proclaim their shows to be American Kabuki. In program notes or other forms of pubUc information, their indebtedness to Japanese kabuki is acknowledged. But what is American Kabuki? For the purposes of this essay, American Kabuki wül be used to refer to plays adopting Japanese Kabuki elements which are presented in EngUsh, by and for EngUsh-speaking North Americans. Experiments in Amercian Kabuki began under the direction of experts with the first production occurring at the University of HawaU in 1951 (Pronko 159). Western and Japanese academics took the lead in organizing the first American Kabuki plays, often in cooperation with master actors from Japan's Grand Kabuki (Pronko 48). These educators, who include Earle Ernest and James Brandon of the University of Hawan, Leonard Pronko of Pomona CoUege, and Sata Shozo of the University of Illinois, were quite knowledgeable about kabuki. They had viewed many performances, pursued scholarly research, and most had spent time in Japan participating in kabuki framing. Another approach to American Kabuki is evidenced through the work of Arne Zaslove, Rk Young, Janet Descutner, and Jerry WiUiams, diredors of three "successful" Pacific Northwest American Kabuki plays. These directors speak no Japanese, have seen at most one or two actual kabuki shows (two of the four diredors have never seen kabuki in Japan), and have no experience working with kabuki actors, choreographers, or designers. Through a consideration of the kabuki performances of these directors, the power and limitations of American Kabuki wül be examined, as weU as the process of its creation. The three productions under discussion include Arne Zaslove's 1985 production of Kabuki Lear with the Seattle's Bathhouse/ACT (A Contemporary Theatre); The Passion for Fresh Flowers, a kabuki/buto reinterpretation of the Ufe and death of Christ, directed by Rk Young in 1988 for Portland's Storefront Theatre; and the University of Oregon's Kabuki Bacchae directed by Janet Descutner and Jerry WiUiams in 1990. AU four •Author's Note: This article is dedicated to tue Young, who died of AIDS in February, 1992. For over twenty years he was a driving force in Portland's avant-garde theatre. 161 162 Laurence Kominz directors emphaticaUy deny expertise in kabuki. Some are newcomers to kabuki, but aU are prof essionaUy distanced from Japanese kabuki. AU have a long record of devotion to presentational theatre: Zaslove in mime and masks, Young in dance and design, Descutner in dance, and WiUiams in puppetry and design. For each of them, seeing kabuki was a revelational experience, a vindication of the sort of drama of which they had dreamed. They saw in kabuki an "unsophisticated theatre" in which the mechanics of the stage and acting are exposed and yet enjoyable to watch.1 Kabuki theatre is not dominated by play texts; it is total theatre in which physical movement, non-verbal vocalization, music, and design are aUowed fuU expressive potential. The kabuki stage for these directors is "a place of magic and miracles."2 Featuring exotic costumes, musical instruments, and in the case of Passion and Kabuki Bacchae, gorgeous sets, aU three productions were visually spectacular and auraUy rich. The three plays concern momentous human suffering and passion, both tragic and painful. In choosing a kabuki approach, the directors were utilizing theatrical concepts and techniques as beyond the ordinary for the American stage as the experiences of Pentheus, Lear, and Christ are beyond the ordinary for human experience. In Passion for Fresh Flowers, Rk Young alternately horrified audience members with the demon character and moved them to tears of compassion for a suffering and vulnerable Christ by creating stark visual and auditory contrasts on stage. The provocative script forced the audience to think about spiritual and moral issues; a discussion of the production dominated one Saturday's reUgion page in The Oregonian, Portland's leading newspaper. But it was how the play was presented that created a cathartic emotional experience for the audience, angering and outraging some who came, but uplifting many more. Young centered the play's conflict and aesthetic contrast between Christ...


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pp. 161-173
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