7. 13.13 — Shun-kin at the Lincoln Center Festival, co-produced by Tokyo’s Setagaya Public Theatre with London’s Complicite under the direction of Simon McBurney, has the theatrical stretch and narrative multidimensionality we’ve come to expect from McBurney, best-known in New York for Mnemonic (2001) and A Disappearing Number (2010). Never too many layers in a Complicite production. McBurney’s leaping-off point for this collaboration with a Japanese theater company was his admiration for the writing of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), especially his 1933 essay “In Praise of Shadows.” Finding it difficult to create a theater piece from an essay on Japanese aesthetics, he shifted his attention to Tanizaki’s story “A Portrait of Shunkin,” which purports to tell the true story of a blind female shamisen master and her intricate, erotic, even kinky relationship with her servant/pupil/lover Sasuke.
Actually, Tanizaki’s story is a sort of faux-documentary – a little like Borges, he enjoyed creating fictions that read like factual accounts. Perfect cue for McBurney to proliferate multiple narrative layers – the show opens with a prologue in which the longtime Peter Brook actor Yoshi Oida telling a personal story about his relationship to the material, and the play is framed as the recording of an audiobook or radio version of the story performed in a sound studio by a narrator (Ryoko Tateishi). Tanizaki’s story itself begins and ends with the author searching in a cemetery for the gravesites of Shunkin and Sasuke, and the chronicle is staged in classical Japanese style with the main character played as a bunraku puppet (wittily, after two child puppets have grown up, the adult Shunkin is played by an actress still manipulated by two black-clad puppeteers), while all the music the characters play is written and performed (exquisitely) by a master musician, Honjoh Hidetaro, who sits on his own separate platform. Stitching all these pieces together is the audience’s job and our pleasure – with of course the added layer of English surtitles projected on a screen unusually high up above the stage. It’s a beautiful and elegantly sculpted piece of theater, though not nearly as spectacular or affecting as Mnemonic or A Disappearing Number. You’re not really aware of how hushed and dimly lit the staging is until the final moments of the show, when the rear curtain rises to shine blazing white light into the audience, coupled with a roar of contemporary ambient sound – the roar of contemporary urban life.
One of the major pleasures of the production is reading the program notes, especially McBurney’s essay, “Searching for Shun-kin,” which begins with him in a portable toilet: “In Japan, sometimes it’s hard to know what you are looking at. I gaze at the symbols beside me, my underwear still around my ankles…” Oh, that Simon McBurney! He’s very comfortable in his body. (He played the central role in Mnemonic, largely in the nude, see below.) You can read the whole essay and all the program notes online here.
7.14.13 — My friend George Russell has been working for several months on a production of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s Savage/Love with his company De Facto Dance. I’ve been consulting with George about the production, so I went to the first of three performances at HERE and was pleased to note that the program credits me as dramaturgy consultant, along with Wayne Maugans, a longtime Chaikin actor who also gives a strong performance in the show. It’s an absolute hybrid of dance and theater, an unusual but not crazy approach to the open-ended poetic text, originally performed as a solo by Chaikin.