Suzan Hanson and Herbert Perry in "The Sound of a Voice"(Photo: Richard Feldman)
Suzan Hanson and Herbert Perry in "The Sound of a Voice"
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
The American Repertory Theatre wraps up its first season under new artistic director Robert Woodruff with The Sound of a Voice, a world premiere collaboration between Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and minimalist composer Philip Glass that lives somewhere in between theater and opera and has the spare elegance of a Japanese Zen garden.

Glass calls it music theater -- an "opera for a theater company." Think of his Oscar-nominated soundtrack for The Hours with an Asian flavor. Directed by Woodruff, the show is made up of two short pieces -- "The Sound of a Voice" and "Hotel of Dreams" -- based on two short Hwang plays that Glass saw performed 20 years ago at The Public Theater. This is the third collaboration for the pair; the first was the sci-fi spectacle 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, presented at A.R.T. in 1990, and the second was a commission from the Metropolitan Opera.

Here, Hwang continues to explore his fascination with East-West cultural fusion as he did in M. Butterfly, Golden Child, and, most recently, his rewrite of Flower Drum Song. "The Sound of a Voice" was inspired by Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan or "Weird Tales" (made into a film by Masaki Kobayashi) but it puts a modern spin on the traditional Japanese trope of the wily female fox spirit. The libretto tells the simple story of an aging samurai who turns up at a woman's cottage in the woods. Only upon her insistence does he accept a cup of tea, then a bowl of rice, and then a mat to sleep on. Before we know it, he's been there for weeks.

"Sound" is Hwang at his most minimal, with short lines of dialogue, Pinter-like pauses, and simple actions (such as the scrubbing of a floor) that recall Maria Irene Fornes's Mud. The story is told in nine short scenes, several of which have no speech at all. In one of the most affecting, we watch as the Man practices with his samurai sword while the Woman plays her bamboo flute inside her small house. When the Man peeks inside, the scrims that create the house are lit, revealing to the audience what he sees: the Woman making love to the flowers that she carefully cultivates.

The second piece, "Hotel of Dreams," also has no more than two characters. Here, in contrast to the timelessness of "Sound," there is a more contemporary Japanese setting with more conversational language to match. The piece opens with an older woman sitting behind a desk and instructing a man, "You must not do anything distasteful. You must not put your fingers in the girls' mouths." Hearing that order, audience members may think they know just what kind of establishment this is; but while the old men who visit the hotel sleep alongside young, attractive, naked virgins, sleep seems to be literally what they come here to do.

Glass's score plays continually throughout the pieces, which are organized around scenes rather than songs. The vocally and emotionally precise performers -- all four of them Glass opera regulars rather than members of A.R.T.'s resident acting company -- sing in a less-operatic, more-conversational style as the text appears on a screen hanging to the side of the stage. Glass builds his score around the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute, to which he adds a cello, a flute, and a large, Asian-influenced percussion section. (This is his first composition for Asian instruments and it has satisfied his desire to work with Wu Man, a world-renowned pipa virtuoso living in the Boston area.)

While the music of both pieces is similar, it functions differently in each. In "Sound," the Woman's flute playing and the Man's dance-like sword exercises, together with an overall mystical quality, make the music an organic element; long silences and scenes sans dialogue give the music space to carry the piece. In "Hotel," where the dialogue is more plentiful and concrete, the music acts more as an underscore, heightening our sense that there is indeed something beneath the often businesslike exchanges of the two characters.

Janice Felty and Eugene Perry in "Hotel of Dreams"(Photo:  Richard Feldman)
Janice Felty and Eugene Perry in "Hotel of Dreams"
(Photo: Richard Feldman)
Glass's music also seems to work with Hwang's text on a deeper level: The Zen-like state that his music often inspires, even demands, is a fine complement to the dramatic challenges that Hwang creates. "Sound" is more about what goes unsaid, and subtext is sometimes hard to swallow -- or hard to follow. Audience members may feel frustrated in waiting almost two-thirds of the way through the piece before the samurai lets go with some key plot points, including what he's heard about the woman and what he's doing here.

But perhaps letting go of theatrical expectations is the point. In this fusion of theater and opera, Glass and Wu Man, Hwang's English text and Eastern ideas about the power of the unspoken, Woodruff may be asking A.R.T. audiences to accept a new kind of theater. In this elegantly spare, quietly moving production, there is plenty to enjoy besides the usual pay-offs of more traditional Western theater. In "Hotel of Dreams," when Mr. Yamamoto tells the Woman, "I don't understand," she serves him some wise advice as she ushers him to a roomful of dreams: "Don't understand. Just enjoy tonight's sleep."