Stage Buster 

Grand Kabuki bigger than life

6/17, 6/18

As I trudged to the Grand Kabuki Theater of Japan many years ago, I expected to be as agonizingly bored as I had been when my seventh-grade French class was marched to a stage performance of Molière's Tartuffe that none of us understood. My command of Japanese was even more rudimentary than my French -- that, say, of a two-month-old. I knew nothing about the epic stories kabuki told, and I thought its ritual movement style would be incomprehensibly esoteric. But that day changed my life -- the masterful economy of movement; the growling, trilling language; stories of tragic range, and emotions so crystalline they seemed to glimmer before us. Everything that had to be understood, even by a neophyte like me, was comprehensible. In that fact rests the secret of kabuki, which is among the oldest continuously performed theater forms around. Literally, it means song-dance-artistry, but what translation can't capture is that it is the poetic synthesis of the human condition. There are two traditions in kabuki: the sewamono repertoire, developed in the 18th century and designed for the masses, and the kyôgen dance play, sometimes farcical stories dating from the 13th century, to entertain the samurai class. Grand Kabuki will give Berkeley audiences this Friday and Saturday at Zellerbach Hall ( a taste of both, performing the epic love story Sonezaki Shinju (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki), with the master actor Nakamura Ganjiro III performing the female role of Ohatsu for the last time, and the short musical comedy Boshibari (Tied to a Pole).

Besides full-scale sets and majestic costumes, the all-male Chikamatsu troupe, which has been absent from Berkeley for nine long years, will construct a hanamichi bridge that extends into the audience, to allow the larger-than-life performers to penetrate the theater's space. For a preview, don't miss the free demonstration today (Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.) at Hertz Hall on kabuki's history and techniques. And in the theater, make sure to spring for a pair of headphones for a translation of the stories as they unfold. -- Ann Murphy


O-Town Twist

Preach It!

Inner-city coming-of-age stories will always be relevant, especially when they're written by the great James Baldwin. Describing his play Amen Corner, he wrote: "I knew that what I wanted to do in the theatre was to re-create moments I remembered as a boy preacher, to involve the people, even against their will, to shake them up, and, hopefully, to change them." The play gets updated with an Oakland twist in the Lower Bottom Playaz' revival production, directed by Ayodele "WordSlanger" Nzinga, which runs through June 26 at the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater, 920 Peralta St., Oakland. $5-$10, 510-208-5651. -- Eric K. Arnold

THU 6/16

Spittle Happens

It's been a long, hard, grueling, and wordy competition, filled with passion, emotion, pathos, and flying spittle. And it all comes to an end Thursday night, when the winners of the Oakland(ish) Poetry Slam season's previous events take the stage one last time, in a three-round elimination battle hosted by Nazelah Jamison and Dahled. The first-, second-, and third-place finalists will represent Oakland in the National Poetry Slam Competition against 75 other teams from other cities in August. To paraphrase a line often uttered by surfers, snowboarders, and other professional athletes, it's time to go poetic or go home. 8 p.m., 411 2nd St., Oakland. -- Eric K. Arnold


Pinole Whorehouse Opens

If nothing else, the success of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in repertory proves that no matter how powerful censors and bluenoses think they are, ordinary American people are growing more liberal year by year, at least in their choice of light musical entertainment. Larry L. King's singing-dancing story of the Chicken Ranch bordello, which ran on Broadway and begat a movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, still has the power to zap the prudes -- even if it has settled into middle age and no one remembers who Tommy Tune was. Pinole Community Players' production opens Friday (8 p.m.) at the Community Playhouse, 601 Tennent Ave., Pinole, and runs through July 16. $17-14. -- Kelly Vance



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