Concepts of theater challenged by 'Susurrus'

By Donald V. Calamia

Scottish playwright David Leddy's "Susurrus" is at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor through Oct. 3. Photo: Courtesy David Leddy

As creative artists use the latest technologies to stretch the long-established boundaries of traditional theater, some works generate significant "buzz" while others are quickly forgotten. One show in the former category is "Susurrus," which opened Sept. 9 at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor - and not only will it challenge your preconceived notion of "theater," expect to leave the performance with a mix of emotions that will stay with you for hours or days to come.

Isn't that what good theater - or great theater - is SUPPOSED to accomplish?

Unlike a conventional play, "Susurrus" isn't performed on a stage - nor are there any live actors to be found anywhere throughout the performance. Instead, armed with a map and an iPod, participants (four at a time every 15 minutes) are ushered through a door and instructed to follow a well-marked route while listening to the story unfold through stereo headphones. (Think of it as a radio drama you listen to while walking around your very beautiful and peaceful yard.)

To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a long hike - mostly outdoors - but the scenery was magnificent, and the weather was, too. So as the prerecorded actors told their stories, I wandered the paths and watched butterflies scurry from flower to flower, a duck swim and feed in a pond, and a young child play quietly with his mother. It was a peaceful setting - but then it dawned on me: For while the others in my group were also listening to the story, each of us was experiencing it in our own way - and in our own solitary world. There was no interaction of any kind between or among us, even as we progressed from one setting to another. (Musical interludes by Benjamin Britten, Nat King Cole and Edith Piaf among others help move you from place to place.) So while "Susurrus" is communal in the sense that several people experience it together, each person is totally alone in their thoughts and reactions to it.

The result is a walk that stimulates both your senses and your imagination.

So what's "Susurrus" about? Since much of the fun is connecting the various parts of the story into a cohesive whole (and figuring out who's who and how they relate to one another), I won't say much about the plot. But it centers on a famous opera singer and his two children - a son and a daughter, both of whom were adopted. Now adults, they look back at their childhoods and at how differently they were treated by their father - and why.

While each of the four characters has a unique story to tell, a major underpinning is Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." And in particular, creator David Leddy focuses on one particular moment that the Bard never fully explores: Why does Oberon take an interest in the Indian boy Titania is raising? And why does he want the boy to become his page?

In "Susurrus," the adopted son of the opera singer is Indian. And his father received great acclaim for his role in Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The startling answer may shock theatergoers who aren't expecting such a serious and profound revelation out among the peaceful flowers and trees.

Susurrus, according to Merriam and Webster, means "a whispering or rustling sound," which certainly describes the show's setting, the smooth and comforting voices of the actors heard on the recording, and much of the story of "Susurrus" itself. If you decide to experience it yourself, wear conformable shoes, move about at your own pace - I went through it in about 90 minutes - and be prepared for a theatrical experience unlike any you've had before.

And afterward, the hauntingly poignant story will likely stay with you for hours - even the parts that may not make sense right away.

REVIEW:

'Susurrus'

Presented by the University Musical Society at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, 1800 N. Dixboro Rd., Ann Arbor. Times vary; groups of four admitted every 15 minutes. Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 3. Recommended for ages 16+; contains adult themes. $30. 734-764-2538. {www.ums.org}

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