Historic production of Japanese classic play hits the stage

Portland State staged the first production of Japan’s classic theater style last week. This was the first time that a Kabuki play was presented fully in English by a North American university.

The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai debuted February 25 at Lincoln Hall Performance Theater.

PSU students and staff filled the audience, along with members of the community. Some came to support friends and family involved in the production, while others were lured by curiosity, eager to see what Kabuki was all about.

Kabuki, though globally recognized, may not be completely familiar to the majority of audiences in the Western Hemisphere.

Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theater art. It is recognized as one of Japan’s three major theaters and named as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Intangible Cultural Heritage. Noted characteristics of Kabuki actors include elaborate costumes, visually striking makeup and big wigs. It is also known for its unique exaggerated acting style and delicate movements that hold meaning to the play.

The stage set also makes Kabuki unique to its culture. A typical set includes a footbridge that allows actors to enter and exit through the audience. Off to the side of the stage are musicians who provide live music throughout the play and a narrator who leads the storyline with their uniquely Kabuki style diction.

Considered one of the finest plays in the repertory, Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai is a tale of loyalty, perseverance, injustice, treachery, and revenge to serve justice. However, it is not an all heavy play, as the story is sprinkled with romance, adventure, and humor.

Even for those unfamiliar with the Japanese culture, emotions may be translated through the performance of the actors and dialogues that have been modified to be understood easily by American audiences.

The show glittered with beautiful colors of traditional Japanese costumes and unfamiliar props, including Kabuki Dummies who narrated parts of the play. The elaborate costumes alone were enough to capture the interest of the curious audience.

Dr. Laurence Kominz, the visionary and director of the play, explained that it wasn’t easy to bring about such a “grand and elaborate spectacle.”

According to Kominz, it took an incredible amount of effort– from fund raising, assembling, and training students–to bring this vision to fruition. There were almost fifty students involved in the production, including kabuki actors, dancers, musicians, and set designers. The group had just seven weeks to master their parts and build sets for ten different scenes. The results led to a historic performance at PSU and “the biggest wardrobe of Kabuki costumes on our shores,” Kominz said.

This was a dream project of Kominz for a long time. “I’m convinced that Kabuki is the most exciting theatrical genre in the world, and I want to share my enthusiasm with as many friends, and Portlanders, as I can,” he said.

Performers and crew members included students from Japanese Studies, the Department of World Languages, and The School of Theater and Film. Others included several theater faculty, individuals hired outside of the university and some from Tokyo who joined the large design and performance leadership team.

The show itself was made possible by 80 students who not only performed on stage, but made costumes, wigs, properties, stage sets and dealt with logistics, such as costume changes between acts. Watching the show made it clear why helping to dress the performers was crucial in running a smooth show: the traditional Japanese costumes come in multiple layers and require elaborate methods of dressing.

After an intense first part of the show, some audience members commented on their experience.

“I think it is a valuable experience to be exposed to theaters of different cultures,” said one student in the audience. “I am not sure how close this show is to the original Kabuki, but I am sure it would be just as exciting in English as it is in Japanese. In real theater, language or culture should not matter in understanding and enjoying it.”

Abbie Johnson is a student at Linfield College and came to watch her cousin, Matthew Stenson, perform.

“This is a really good look into the Japanese culture and traditions,” Johnson said. “This is my first time watching Kabuki.”

PSU Foundation member Karie Trumbo experienced a similar sense of awe. “I have never seen anything like it. It’s so artistic–the lighting, costumes, the way they walk and their expressions.. its very similar to an opera.”

Although the art and spirit of the play kept true to the traditions of Kabuki theater, PSU’s production of the beloved play marked a crucial departure from Japan’s Grand Kabuki. Traditionally a male-led art form, the PSU production was led by both female and male actors on stage.

“We enthusiastically encourage women to perform on stage, in both male and female roles, and we present our play in English, and in an idiom that is easy to understand,” Kominz said.

The Revenge of the 47 Loyal Samurai will continue its run on the Lincoln Stage through March 5. For tickets and information, visit http://tinyurl.com/z9u2dcp.