07/12/2013 03:29 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

First Nighter: Simon McBurney's "Shun-kin" Mustn't Be Shunned at Lincoln Center Festival

To begin his Shun-kin note for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival program, Complicite director Simon McBurney writes, "In Japan, sometimes it's hard to know what you are looking at." Amen to that. Watching Shun-kin in the Rose Theater, you think more often than not that it's hard to know what you are looking at. Leaving the Rose Theater, you find yourself uncertain about what you've just looked at.

One thing you do know for sure is that it was enthrallingly theatrical, as are every one of the works McBurney creates when he's free either to initiate something from scratch or he's able to deal with an existing text in his own by-now-established-free-fall Complicite manner. Another thing you absolutely know is that what you've just watched enacted so precisely was absorbingly beautiful.

The story McBurney is telling--to some extent it's pointedly a drama about storytelling--is taken from a tale by revered Japanese author Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). Though fiction, it supposedly memorializes a well-known shamisen player and teacher, who was born Mozoya Kato but known as Shun-kin. Certainly not incidental to Shun-kin's saga is that she's reported as dying in the year Tanizaki was born, and the synchronicity is somehow key to his infatuation.

For the play, McBurney, as is his standard habit, marshals an expert creative team -- set designers Merle Hensel and Rumi Matsui, costumer Christina Cunningham, sound designer Gareth Fry, lighting designer Paul Anderson, video artist Finn Ross and composer Honjoh Hidetaro. His intention is to set them all toiling in service to a stately, far from atypical Japanese-fashion work. It's the decades-long relationship between the blinded-at-youth eponymous character and the lower-class Sasuke (Songha Cho, Keitoku Takata, Yoshi Oida) who begins as her guide, becomes her shamisen-playing student and ultimately is the butt of her developing sadism.

Because this is a McBurney project and draws on his intriguing inclinations, Shun-kin is presented first as a puppet (puppeteers Eri Fukatsu, Yasuyo Mochizuki, Junko Uchida) and eventually by an actor (Eri Fukatsu, who's already been supplying Shun-kin's voice). It's a significant choice, realized as if choreographed, and is immediately most reminiscent of the puppetry incorporated into McBurney's earlier and unforgettable Mnemonic.

To underline that storytelling theme, McBurney layers the proceedings with not one but two storytellers -- and that's not counting what the actors in their roles have to impart. Tanizaki (Kentaro Mizuki) is present and scribbling away at a stage left desk. Also at center sometimes and sometimes rolled to stage right is a contemporary radio narrator (Ryoko Tateishi), who takes the occasional break to call someone with whom she's apparently conducting a difficult sexual relationship.

So what can be so confusing about the enterprise? Here's a clue provided in expert Steven Dodd's program-note opinion: "Western culture tends to celebrate the concept of unambiguous clarity, whereas the Japanese give greater clarity to ambiguity, the understated -- in short, the world of shadows." (N. B.: During 1933, the year Tanizaki wrote A Portrait of Shunkin, he also published In Praise of Shadows, an essay on esthetics that stressed the powers of darkness in literature.)

What's confusing -- it's a confusion McBurney has no interest in clearing up (much the opposite) -- concerns what conclusion or conclusions to draw from the unquestionable sado-masochistic bond between the rich blind Shun-kin and Sasuke, who becomes increasingly attached to his mistress the more abused he is by her. In time, he even makes a choice involving his own literal and symbolic vision. Over their life together, the partners in this misalliance have three children, a daughter who dies young and two sons they give up for adoption and never reclaim. And lest the radio narrator is forgotten, where does her particular pickle figure in all this? Is she meant to represent a latter-day but much less compelling S&M liaison? Is she an example of the modern world's weaker behaviors?

(By the way, perhaps it's only Western audiences that laugh, but that's exactly what happens when it's mentioned fairly early in a line of throwaway dialogue that "masochistic tendencies" among the principals are in evidence.)

So: It appears that perplexed patrons are to make of Shun-kin what they will--rather as if they're attending something Richard Foreman has concocted. A ticket buyer can take the 110-minute intermissionless piece or leave it. My advice: Take it. As with so many slow-moving, elegiac artifacts of Japanese origins, it's too mesmerizing to dismiss.

A last warning: Shun-kin is performed in Japanese with supertitles that materialize so far above the players' heads that two problems arise: 1) When paying close attention to the action, a patron may miss the accompanying translation; and 2) When paying close attention to the supertitles, a patron may miss the accompanying action. Again, one takes it or leaves it.