The Spy Across the Table
DAY 1, SUNDAY, 3:00 P.M.
THE KENNEDY CENTER, WASHINGTON, DC
MIKEY was shot because he begged me for a favor and I complied.
My old college buddy and I stood in the wings of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House theater, watching a Kabuki play unfold in front of a sold-out crowd. VIPs were abundant.
Mikey was starstruck. While everyone in the audience tracked the mesmerizing movements of the Japanese players in their colorful robes, Mikey focused on the bigger picture. Yes, he took in the artistry of the actors, but his expert eye also cataloged the exquisite details of the backdrops, the exotic sweep of the pageantry, and how each played off the other.
“Her costume and makeup are perfect,” Mikey said in a low voice. “Is that really a man under there?”
My friend’s emerald-green eyes sparkled as he soaked up the spectacle. Onstage, snowflakes wafted down. A woman in an elaborately embroidered kimono cooed plaintively for her lover. The expression of emotional turmoil on her face was sublimely complex, half-hopeful even as it plunged toward despair.
“Yes,” I said.
Early in seventeenth-century Japan, the shogun famously banned women from the Kabuki stage. The elegantly clad females proved too much of a temptation for aristocratic samurai, who were expected to set an example for the common people by staking out society’s moral high
ground. Over time, the long-standing men-only policy evolved into a tradition that persists to this day.
Mikey remained incredulous. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“I’m certain of it.”
Kabuki troupes wasted no time in seeking men with the prowess to play women. Costumes were upgraded. Makeup was subtly altered. Gestures demure and flirtatious were endlessly practiced and refined, then perfected. The Kabuki experience reached new heights. Even today, Kabuki continued to win converts. Transfixed, Mikey was clearly another. Before him, an actor in snow-white makeup, coiffed wig, and ruby lips uttered a soft lament.
“What’d she say, Brodie?”
She. I told him.
“Brilliant,” he whispered. “The mood of the lighting and even the set itself echoes her sentiment.”
Michael C. Dillman was a production designer. He created sets for movies. Tonight he was a kid in a candy store. We’d run into each other at San Francisco State, where we shared the same artistic sensibilities. Mikey funneled his into set design. I channeled mine into a store selling Japanese art and antiquities out on Lombard, west of Van Ness Avenue.
“How is it you two never met?” I asked, a reference not to the “temptress” onstage but to Sayuri “Sharon” Tanaka.
My old college buddy blushed. “I . . . I just never found the time.”
I smiled at his transparent evasion.
Mikey was shier than shy, even with two Oscar nominations and one win under his belt. Sharon Tanaka was a famed Japanese designer for stage and screen and had been hired to create special backdrops for the Kennedy Center production.
“Did I thank you for getting me in to see her, Brodie?”
Mikey was a longtime admirer of Sharon Tanaka’s work.
“Yes. More times than I can count.”
Sharon and I were friends and frequented some of the same art circles in Tokyo. When Mikey had heard she would be traveling to Washington with the Kabuki troupe, he asked me to arrange a meeting.
“This is a dream. Thanks, man. I owe you.”
“No, you don’t,” I said.
From under a disheveled bush of auburn hair, his eyes glowed with a gratefulness I found embarrassing. I glanced away, recalling the first time I’d seen the look. We were college roommates for a while, sharing a near-campus apartment. I got a dose of the look when I gave him the larger bedroom, because even back then he was hauling around cumbersome stage paraphernalia.
Mikey checked his watch. “Time to go see the grand lady. Thanks again, man.”
“Stop saying that. Maybe one day you two can collaborate.”
Mikey grew wistful at the thought. “That would be nice. Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need any. Just enjoy the get-together.”
Turned out I was wrong.
He needed luck in the worst way—and didn’t get it.