Like dreams, the productions by Complicité are dense and ethereal at once. Characterized by breathtaking visuals and knotty, cerebral plots, shows like A Disappearing Number and The Elephant Vanishes point at the blurred lines between memory and imagination. They also frequently remind us of the artificiality of theater, both through incorporating devices from Kabuki, Bunraku, and other Asian forms and by including frequent interruptions from the modern world that verge on, and sometimes are, meta.
The story told in Shun-Kin, which plays at the Power Center tonight and tomorrow (9/20 and 21) is one of devotion, despite or possibly because of inflicted pain. A young girl, cruelly blinded, acts with equal cruelty to the servant who becomes infatuated with her. It’s sadomasochism without the titillation; the bulk of the promotional material barely hints at it. On the surface, this is probably a wise decision; Shun-Kin bears zero resemblance to the book with the title that sounds like the most uninteresting paint shop in the world. And yet, how marvelous to entice people in and then bend their minds a fair amount as to the power struggle at the heart of most sexual relationships, which becomes heightened when physical violence gets added to the mix.
Then again, having watched the theater’s co-founder and artistic director Simon McBurney speak prior to the performance, I ain’t got a clue to the company’s marketing strategy. McBurney shambled onto the Michigan Theater stage, asked the full house what theater he was in, whinged a fair amount about his jet lag, and admitted that he had prepared absolutely nothing. It sounded like possibly 20% of the audience enjoyed the schtick; the rest of us waited, anticipating that, as the director of the show, surely he’d have something to say. There were some interesting snippets about how memory works, a fascinating topic on which he has a lot to contribute. But in all, it was so half-assed it bordered on punk of the order of the Sex Pistols’ infamous appearance on the Bill Grundy show. The Pistols had a point; Grundy was acting like a pompous twat, and their work was about anarchy and aversion to polish. Complicité is the exact opposite, work finely tuned and exquisite, meant to get under your skin and make you question assumptions you don’t even know you have. In the half hour I sat through, McBurney didn’t mention the show once. I was thankful for the excuse of getting to my usher post on time so I could quietly walk out as the proportion of people gamely chuckling seemed to dwindle.
Hopefully, this was a singular reaction on my part, and I’m sure McBurney got a hearty round of applause at the end. He does know how to close with a bang, based on the endings of Shun-Kin and Disappearing Number, both of which I saw at the Power Center. I will admit to finding Complicité’s work a bit chilly; a good thing, I think. McBurney did mention Beckett more than once, and the troupe has done what looks like a spectacular Endgame. Like that master’s work, Complicité’s original shows start in the brain and work their way into your gut, as opposed to the shows that start in the gut and never aim much higher.
Shun-Kin, I’m sure, has lodged deep, as did its predecessor Disappearing Number. Bits and pieces that are still fresh include: the grown-up Shun-Kin, played by a woman instead of a puppet like the child Shun-Kin, and yet still moved and spoken for in the same way; the sweet interludes of the contemporary reader when she calls up her lover on her cell phone; the haunting image of a rising moon, so subtle that when you finally register it, you wonder how long it’s been hovering in the background; a perfectly still figure, her face mysteriously draped in cloth.
Throughout the performance, I had the feeling that it could suddenly make sense in an instant. It did, at the very end, a marvelous bit of drama that can only be achieved on a stage with a live audience. I hope others were as enamored by McBurney’s 50 minutes at the Michigan as I was underwhelmed, and that audiences grow; the crowd at the Power Center was small enough that everyone upstairs was able to move down if they wanted. Shun-Kin has the power to slice into your consciousness if you’re up for it. If you are, get over there and check it out.
(This excellent review from the show’s run at Lincoln Center provides more plot points and commentary.)