Posted on: Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Kabuki gives the broken heart its stately ritual

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser

You don't have to be knowledgeable about Asian theater to truly enjoy it.

'Nozaki Village'
  • Kennedy Theatre, UH-Manoa
  • 8 p.m. today-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
  • $18, $15, $12 and $3
  • 956-7655
You do have to be able to put yourself "in the moment" of the play to feel its emotion.

The Japanese kabuki style is stylized, a formal ritual. Each gesture is guarded and meaningful. Each line is carefully intoned. Makeup and costuming are the result of hundreds of years of refinement and tradition.

To the untutored Western eye and ear, it's a slow-moving business. Mentally check out of a scene for a few moments and not much has changed when you check back in. To resonate with the action requires discipline, attention or — maybe — an effective hook.

In "Nozaki Village," now in production at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, the hook is firmly set midway in the second act. Then director Julie Iezzi plays her audience with careful skill all the way to the final curtain.

So in Western terms, the action is slow to ignite and much of the first act is meandering preparation for what is to come. Initially, it is a five-sided love story, with a mismatched couple and too many suitors for one woman.

Hisamatsu (Christopher Doi) is in love with Osome (Lei Sadakari), daughter of the shop owner to whom he is apprenticed. But it has been arranged that Hisamatsu must marry Omitsu (Xing Fan) . Worse, Osome is being suitored by Sashiro (Colleen Lanki) and desired by Kosuke (Alvin Chan), the shop's head clerk. The clerk frames Hisamatsu to make it look like he has stolen money and Hisamatsu is fired.

To the rescue comes Kyusaku (Gilbert Molina), Omitsu's step-father, who pays off the stolen cash and spirits Hisamatsu to his home in Nozaki village to proceed with the wedding.

The psychological action gets cranking when Osome follows her lover to Nozaki village, where it becomes clear the pair will commit suicide if they can not marry.

Omitsu makes the great sacrifice to break off the betrothal and announce she will become a nun, cutting her hair and shedding her outer kimono to demonstrate her intent. That gesture begins a long, ritualized slide to the play's climax, marked by rich visual effect, careful intonation and musical accompaniment, controlled pantomime and vibrating emotion.

As Omitsu discards her worldly exterior, we see her psychologically transformed into her new life as humble religious servant. Hisamatsu and Osome are sobered by the depth of Omitsu's sacrifice. Kyusaku stoically accepts the sudden turn of events.

Osome's mother Okatsu (Danel Verdugo) urges them to keep up appearances, taking her daughter home by boat and sending Hisamatsu back in her own sedan chair.

The action then turns to visual spectacle as scenic designer Daniel Gelbmann's entire set revolves, replacing the interior of Kyusaku's house with its exterior frontage on a canal. Stagehands spread blue cloth to represent water and Okatsu and Osome step into a boat.

What follows is a long recessional as the exiting characters travel back through the audience on a double set of ramps. Kyusaku and Omitsu stand transfixed, watching their agonizingly slow departure.

When at last they are finally gone, something falls from Omitsu's hand to the floor, breaking their spell. It appears to be a religious amulet, which Kyusaku carefully rewinds into her fingers. Only then does Omitsu give in to emotion. The curtain closes on the tableau of the wailing Omitsu in Kyusaku's arms. It is a moment filled with operatic power and dimension.

While the action is slow to start, there is much to see and hear. Osome's walk is a trembling reed of studied femininity. There are musicians and chanting narrators. Costumes, wigs and make-up are all carefully prepared.

The result is richly textured and subtly detailed and — for those patient enough to wait — ultimately rewarding.

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