Puppets, Music And More

European And Japanese Artists Present Tale Of 'Shun-kin'

By Amy J. Parrent

ANN ARBOR - In 1933 Jun'ichiro Tanizaki wrote a story called "Portrait of Shunkin," a fictional biography so believable in its dense, fragmented style that critics thought the mock documentary was a true account. In fact, when Complicite theater director Simon McBurney first studied the piece, he too was almost fooled by the work, which had actually been inspired by a Thomas Hardy short story.

Now re-envisioned for the stage by McBurney, "Shun-kin" is a contemporary collaboration of European and Japanese artists utilizing timeless traditional Japanese theatrical forms.

And yet, said Michael Kondziolka, director of programming at Ann Arbor's University Musical Society, which will present "Sun-kin" Sept. 18-21 at Power Center, "The work is meant to be looked at by someone who doesn't have knowledge of all these layers and styles."

McBurney's driving passion was to understand and adapt to a Japanese style of thought and the expression of that thought.

A non-Japanese speaker, McBurney has said that when he asked the cast in rehearsal to pause at the end of a sentence, "I appeared to have a rebellion on my hands."

At last the translator explained to him there should be no full stops, "no short phrases to quicken the narrative."

McBurney also described Tanazaki's style as "meandering and crossing one event into another," leaving questions.

But the Japanese cast told him, "It is precisely the intention that we should be left in ambiguity."

Truly Render, press and marketing manager for UMS, said the production is seamless and smooth in part because Japanese traditions are so alive and well. "That culture has done a fine job of preserving itself," she said. "The play uses every theatrical trick, and does it in front of you. The music is performed live; you can see how the special effects are done."

She praises the show's incorporation of bunraku as performed by puppeteers from the London-based Blind Summit Theatre. "It's beautiful watching a team work to animate a character," said Render. "Shun-kin starts as a puppet, a cold-hearted person, and then she becomes a (real) person."

Render, mother of a pre-schooler, said, "It is crazy to see the puppet portraying a 4-year-old. I thought, 'That's exactly how a child moves.'"

Along with live actors, puppets and musicians there is a narrator. (The play is performed in Japanese with English supertitles.) But it's not just about the words, said Kondziolka. "We tend to privilege words in Western theater," he said. "We read plays as literature. We think of a play as a delivery of words. This piece privileges other things as much as words: Music, the images they create, objects - the puppets, movement and action. All things are narrative.

"It's the way the parts move together to create a sense of the story that wants to be told," said Kondziolka. "It's the essence of the work; the details are not important. The emotion the details create is what's important."

McBurney said, "Ninety-nine percent of the average audience will not remember what is said. What will be remembered is what is felt."

Said Kondziolka, "All of Simon McBurney's work is about what feeling he's leaving you with."

"Shun-kin" marks a return to the UMS schedule of McBurney's London-based Complicite and Japan's Setagaya Public Theater, following their 2004 UMS debut with "The Elephant Vanishes." (Complicite also appeared in Ann Arbor in 2008 performing "A Disappearing Number.") "I still have people coming up to me nine years later to talk about 'The Elephant Vanishes,'" said Kondziolka. "Maybe they can't tell you what it was about, but they just want to share their emotions."

Kondziolka said he is pleased when UMS is able to have "a true master" such as McBurney in Michigan, comparing it to the past performances of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach" and an upcoming production by Peter Brook.

A small bonus for those who've seen other Complicite works is to recognize certain onstage images and themes that reoccur. "'Shun-kin' is part of Complicite's complete body of work," said Render. "There are visual through lines that they've been doing over the years. Simon is interested in long-range thinking."

And while a description of the play may sound like overload, the execution doesn't feel heavy, said Render. "There is narrative; it's a play," she said. "It is innovative in its use of theatricality to get to the narrative pulse. It's told as a story, and the audience should relax and enjoy that story."



University Musical Society at Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 18-19 and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Sept. 20-21. $18 and above. 734-764-2538. http://www.ums.org

Wednesday's activities include a post-performance Q & A with Simon McBurney. Render says those who'd like to immerse themselves more deeply in the experience can also attend a panel discussion at the Hatcher Gallery Library at noon on Thursday, September 19 and hear Simon McBurney at the Penny Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series at the Michigan Theater, Thursday at 5:10 p.m.

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