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Kabuki troupe gives tradition a light touch

Kabuki theater has been popular in Japan for nearly 400 years. But Boston is only now getting its first taste of it. And it's a tiny one: the famed Heisei Nakamura-za Theatre is appearing at the Cutler Majestic through tomorrow.

The six-man troupe is led by Nakamura Kankuro, whose family has included kabuki actors for 15 generations. Also featured is his son, Nakamura Shichinosuke, perhaps better known to Western audiences as the young emperor in "The Last Samurai."

The first piece last night was "Bo-Shibari" ("Tied to a Pole"), a slapstick comedy about two servants getting into their master's sake stash despite his tying them up. With clever use of their hands, feet, and mouths, the pair quickly drink up the sake.

With 13 musicians singing and playing instruments and drums on orange risers behind, the actors convey universally recognized signs of drunkenness while still managing to spin, prance, and stamp on the floor. One servant, played by Kankuro, whose hands are tied to a pole, even manages to flip a fan from one hand to another.

While much of the humor is broad, it was equally fun to watch the nuances of expression; from a somewhat stock glum face to a droll one without the actor seeming to move a muscle.

The second half of the show, "Renjishi" ("Dance for Two Lions"), featured Kankuro and Shichinosuke as two court dancers rehearsing a play with small lion masks, in which a father lion teaches his son what he needs to know to survive in the wilds. They become so involved in their dance that they leave the stage and return dressed much more ferociously, having "become" real lions. Their enormous red or white lion "manes" flow to the ground, and the dancing and music kick up several notches in intensity.

Despite these classic pieces being done in Japanese, the plots are simple and easy to follow. And when you're lost, just watch the costumes, like wide-legged brocade pantaloons that reveal flashes of yellow lining. Or the small, precise movements -- hands straight as books, with thumbs tucked under -- as well as actors making grand athletic leaps upward, then landing on the floor, cross-legged.

The troupe is here as part of the Japan Society of Boston's centennial celebration. To make the Cutler Majestic as authentic as possible, a hanamichi -- a runway through the audience on which kabuki actors make their entrances and exits -- has been specially built.

Every movement, gesture, ounce of paint, and inch of costume is part of an ancient tradition passed down from father to son. And everything has a specific reason for being. Not that you need to know that. The spectacle is worth it on its own terms.

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