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Lisa Tejero, Elaine Yuko Qualter, Tohoru Masamune,
and Ryan Artzberger in Silk
(Photo © Liz Lauren)
Silk, newly adapted from the Alessandro Baricco novella by Tony Award winner and MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient Mary Zimmerman, is saturated with sensuousness, charged with restrained eroticism, and scented with mystery. Even the casual theatergoer will be taken by the rich visual beauty and hypnotic aural spell -- both spoken and musical -- of Zimmerman's dream-like production, while even theater cognoscenti may be puzzled as to what it's all about.

Like all things mesmerizing, Silk will provide some viewers with new visions but will put others to sleep. The deliberate, soothing quietude of the 100-minute piece is established through verbal and physical repetitions that form patterns often approaching ritual. These patterns are coupled with an atmospheric and romantic musical score (by regular Zimmerman collaborators Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman) and sumptuous costume and scenic elements (by Mara Blumenfeld and Scott Bradley, respectively). Very little of the show is fast, loud, or bright, although much of it is warm as lit by T.J. Gerckens. This is a tale without a villain, set in Victorian Europe and Japan. All of the characters are amiable but studied, their passions remaining shadowed.

The 1860s setting of Silk contrasts the superficially proper bourgeois society of Louis-Napoleon's France with the even more constrained society of late-feudal Japan, just as the West is forcing trade concessions upon the distant island empire. Bridging the two cultures is a young French trader in silkworm eggs, who journeys from his native France to Japan in search of eggs free of the blight that was then decimating European silkworm eggs (historical fact). On four successive annual trips, Herve Joncour trades through a powerful and protecting warlord, Hara Kei, and shares an erotic obsession with the wordless, beautiful woman at Hara Kei's side -- presumably his mistress, but could she be his wife or daughter? The woman and Joncour never speak, never make love, and they touch hands only once, but this means everything to him.

Silk is a story with a Western body but an Eastern soul, a tale of how an alien culture becomes a lens through which Joncour sees his own culture and himself more clearly. He finds Hara Kei to be a man of impeccable honor and exquisite refinement -- sometimes too symbolically so, as in his caging and freeing of exotic birds -- living in harmony with nature. The arrival of The West, historically a cause of the 1867 Japanese civil war, destroys this harmony. Unconsciously, Joncour comes to mirror the behavior of Hara Kei, especially in the way that he assumes authority and responsibility -- at great personal cost -- for the well-being of his French village, Lavilledieu ("God's Village," an obviously symbolic name but also a real French town). Silk is a love story, but its political philosophy is of equal importance, at least in this reviewer's understanding of Zimmerman's adaptation.

As for the love story itself, Joncour is the hypotenuse of a triangle. His unfulfilled love in Japan enthralls him and fires his imagination in sexual and other ways. Meanwhile, in France, he has a beautiful, resourceful and passionate wife, Helene. Like his mysterious Japanese love, she never speaks a word, although we are told that she has a sonorous voice. Hurting but caring, Helene senses the presence of another woman and comes up with a surprising way -- some might say shocking -- to both feed and destroy Joncour's Japanese obsession.

Silk has a great deal on its plate. The Baricco novella is a masterful study in concentrated storytelling, and Zimmerman's adaptation is the refined essence of theater, showing us as much as it tells us and doing both with bold, sure choices. It's the rare theater artist who dares to use extensive silence and build a work out of tense, hushed expectation; this is exactly what Zimmerman has done.

Her splendid cast features Ryan Artzberger as Joncour, Colleen Delaney as Helene, Tohuru Masamune as Hara Kei, and Elaine Yuko Qualter as Hara Kei's woman. Supporting them are the remarkably droll Glenn Fleshler as Joncour's ebullient mentor Baldabiou; Lisa Tejero as a wily madam; and Christopher Donahue as the narrator, who has far more to say than anyone else in the production. (Baricco's novella contains virtually no spoken dialogue.)

Some may find the show's eroticism too restrained, the entire work too murky, the proceedings simply too slow and too much about artifice without sufficient red blood. But these would be, for lack of a better description, Western reactions and criticisms. To Zimmerman's adaptation of Baricco's tale, one must approach it without the usual theatrical expectations but, rather, as one would approach a Japanese contemplation garden. If you are prepared to accept the mood and tempo of Silk, you will find it a splendid objet d'art.

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