My understanding is that the usual kabuki ticket gets you into a series of back-to-back shows that last some number of hours. I didn't want to commit the time or the money to such a ticket, nor do I have any idea how to get one.
Luckily the theater offers "one show" tickets for those short on cash or deficient on attention. We had to wait in line for about an hour and pay maybe $15, and we were in business. For another 4 bucks, we each rented earphones that gave a loose English translation of the show itself, along with other little historical tidbits or facts about the actors.
We walked up several staircases to the fourth floor of the theater, and once on the other side of the door... "standing room only" said a theater worker without emotion. In their defense, there were seats available but they were all currently occupied, but its strange that I don't recall that being mentioned when I handed them my cash. So in addition to the one official intermission we took some little breaks of our own during the multiple hour long show, to keep our legs from snapping in half.
The "one show" ticket ended up covering two smaller shows. I really wish that they would have let me take some video of everything, or at least sold a DVD somewhere. Both of the shows were really cool and I can't possibly describe them fully in my own words... shame.
The first show was a dance performance supposedly from the Edo period. Two men in bright blue outfits danced in the street while they made something called awamochi, a cake of rice that is pounded with a hammer until it becomes one thick and sticky mass. Their faces were painted in a typical kabuki-looking way, super white with bright red around the eyes... maybe some additional red around the mouth area. The dance itself was awesome, and I realized what a good purchase the earphones were... sometimes these guys were acting out things that I never would have guessed in a million. They were accompanied by a maybe ten person band on the far left of the stage. Vocals, shamisen, maybe a drum or two.
The next show was a bit of a disappointment to me. Rather than the flamboyant costumes and the crazy expressions of a huge kabuki show that I was expecting, we were presented with what seemed to me to be a usual play, set around the time when the US forced Japan to open its doors to the outside world. The setting was a geisha house in a city whose name I don't recall. A geisha killed herself out of loneliness, unknowingly right before she was about to be purchased by an American. Although the two events were unconnected, her friend geisha invented a whole story about how the girl had killed herself rather than be touched by a foreigner, in order to make money from the nationalist samurai still roaming the city.
As an American I wasn't really bothered by the subject matter, I found it a very interesting look into a period in Japanese history that I have read about several times. The part that hurt me the worst was the Japanese guy who played the American. I felt like he was an awkward ass in an over-the-top fashion, perhaps to make it obvious why he didn't belong in polite Japanese society. And his English.... it was so awful. His accent was grating. At one point he and a Japanese store owner were attempting to communicate, and it just made me cringe. The store owner's purposefully bad language skills weren't that much worse than the guy who was supposed to be native. I don't know. Maybe I was still mad that I was standing for hours to see something that wasn't even kabuki, but it bothered me a bit.
Once that awful English speaker was gone the play was quite interesting, and ended with the lying geisha finally getting caught in her lie years later. This was my first time seeing a real kabuki act, and this place is one of the premier kabuki stages in the country. Very cool.