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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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University Theatre's all-Kabuki production is a rare treat for Madison audiences
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Robert V. Pham is Narukami in the second half of the Kabuki double bill.
Robert V. Pham is Narukami in the second half of the Kabuki double bill.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Up until now, even if you went to live theater nearly every weekend in Madison, you would have had little chance to see locally produced Kabuki.

Although it's one of the major forms of traditional Japanese theater, not every theater company has the know-how to pull off the stylized acting, elaborate costumes and makeup, and other elements Kabuki requires.

Enter David Furumoto, UW-Madison's current head of University Theatre. Trained in a variety of Asian theater styles, Furumoto is directing UT's current double bill in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre: the short comedy The Zen Substitute, followed after an intermission by Narukami: The Thunder God.

The result is a treat for Madison audiences, and no one should be put off by the unfamiliarity of Kabuki. The stories are relatively straightforward (and plot summaries in the program help). The language of the English translations is, to my ears, easier to get into the groove of than many a Shakespeare play. And the rich costumes, dance-like movements and other elements pull the audience along in a highly visual way.

In The Zen Substitute, a husband, Lord Ukyo, tries to slip away for a night of sake, music and fooling around with his mistress. He tells his wife, the hot-tempered Lady Tomoe, that he's going off for a session of intense meditation ("It will be zazen all night long," he tells her slyly).

Played by jaki-terry, Lady Tomoe is a force of nature. We can see why her husband calls her "the hag of the mountain" behind her back -- but never to her face. Terry seems comfortable with the stylized movements and facial expressions required of her role, as does Ryan Williams as the cheating husband. There's a light, mischievous quality to him that plays well off of terry.

Narukami features first-year MFA acting student Robert V. Pham in the title role. He's a Buddhist saint who's been angered by the emperor, so he has gathered up all the dragon gods of rain, resulting in a drought upon the land.

The emperor sends beautiful Princess Taema (Leanna Kiselicka) to seduce Narukami and release the rain gods. When Narukami realizes he's been fooled, well, let's just say he turns into one badass dude.

As an example of an arogoto-style play (meaning "rough stuff" or "rough business"), Narukami shows off a type of acting used by Kabuki villains and superheroes. As the wronged Buddhist saint, Narukami is utterly transformed. His plain robes are replaced by more elaborate ones with a flame pattern. His hair takes on an exploded quality (think Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). He bellows, screeches and rages, vowing to get revenge upon Taema.

Narukami even does battle with his own monks, who are terrified by the transformation of their master. There's a fight scene in which he takes on all nine at once, dispatching them one by one.

While Kabuki roles are traditionally played by men only, UT has used gender-neutral casting (most of the monks in Narukami are women). And while most of the music is recorded, woodblock player TaeHee Kim, visible at the side of the stage, heightens the action effectively.

Words, movement, costumes, makeup, set design and other elements blend into a fully realized whole. Director Furumoto also makes frequent use of one of Mitchell Theatre's aisles for dramatic entrances and exits.

As Furumoto told Isthmus last fall, "[Narukami] is a good first-time Kabuki play for people. People think of Kabuki as formal, rigid and not that exciting. This play bursts all those bubbles."

Anyone curious about Kabuki shouldn't miss this rare chance to see it in Madison.

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