Hang overhead from all directions
Radiation from the porcelain light
Blind and blistered by the morning light
I dream a highway back to you
-Gillian Welch, "I Dream a Highway"
Here, the slow dance of contingency
An afternoon connected to an evening
by a slender wish. Sometimes absence
makes the heart grow sluggish
and desire only one person, or one thing.
I am closing the curtains.
I am helping the night.
-Stephen Dunn, "The Snowmass Cycle, 4. Delineation at Dusk"
A good friend of mine who I'd lost touch with for the usual reasons of work and distance but who I loved a great deal died this week and that threw my mundane days for a loop. A few days of just going into work either she loved or I associate with the time we hung out most often - Nick Cave, Firewater, my favorite episodes of The West Wing, all accompanied with jagged shards of memory and oozing abscesses of doubt and disgust and self-loathing.
So in a lot of ways it makes sense that the only new art I experienced in this frozen week was Kuro Tanino's group Niwa Gekidan Penino's theater piece The Room Nobody Knows which the Wexner Center brought to town as part of a tour that started at NYC's Japan Society and includes FringeArts, the Walker, and On The Boards. Or something I saw or thought I saw in this dovetails with my mental state and what I got out of this was far different than what the creator intended and your mileage may vary even more than usual. Be warned.
The Room Nobody Knows is a work deeply concerned with dreams, commingled with the guilt that comes from never measuring up to whatever standard is presented to you and the way time wasted just snowballs until the decades are just gone. A work about the abject horror and sadness of keeping that childlike hope even as it flies in the face of all evidence. Anyone I know who loves theater should see this immense, physical show. Anyone I know with a love of heavily psychological art needs to see this. Anyone I know trying to write fiction or poetry dealing with the fantastic should have been occupying a seat for this. I hope there was some cross-pollination with the anime and manga convention in town, Ohayocon, but I know in my days of cons I was often the only one who made time to get out and do that kind of thing.
The first half of the piece is occupied by two fantasy creatures, a male (Taeko Seguchi) with what look like ram horns and a female (Momoi Shimada) with elf ears, busying themselves in a set that looks like a '70s apartment. All decoration is either pottery placed in what looks like cracked patterns or very phallic - the bottom of a table, the chairs, tiny tchotchkes in the windows. Things are blown on, rubbed/dusted and it's the best use of translating childlike motions into adult bodies I've ever seen on a stage. There are some easy jokes early on and it doesn't shirk them but that feels like a feint, they're getting the audience onto a level of acceptance. There's lots of worry about the weather, a storm coming in, made clear through the dark blue and flashes of light in the windows and sound effect, which is also amplified by the exaggerated, small gestures of the "elves".
A couple of scenes in, lights go up below the party being set up.and we see what we realize is the Kenji mentioned in the narration (played by Ikuma Yamada) in an antiseptic room that looks like a surgical operating theater. Bathed in white light with walls of perfectly square, tiled ceramic, Kenji alternates between working in a homework/pre-test workbook and adding details to four very similar masks. It's also, very early on, when the audience realizes Kenji's hair is shot through with grey. This is confirmed when his brother (Ichigo Iida) arrives, home after a long absence. After showing his brother the masks, post-modern takes on the brother's own face, they wrestle in an extremely sexualized way, shirts unbuttoned and legs wrapped around waists and there's a power dynamic established very quickly. The older brother accepts no questions about where he's been and seems very self-satisfied with his brother always stuck in that stasis, always studying and never applying, never moving forward.
The two sets intersect when Kenji introduces the brother to the dream through a trap door and from that point it's a flurry of images - the male and female dream creatures, playing chess but spending more time setting up the chess board than anything; Kenji wearing one of the masks which is set up to fit over his penis and with eyes going back and forth in the only instance where a character breaks the unseen barrier of the set, legs dangling over into "reality" off the front of the stage.
The set, by Michiko Inada, and the lighting by Masayuki Abe, are given heavier prominence than in a typical proscenium play. The sets are both clear in their distinct feels but also are set up so no actor can ever stand fully upright. The psychological effect of always seeing actors in this contorted supplication adds to the empathy and also, at least for me, always kept the audience on edge. There's an expectation of rebellion, of change, but all we get is dissolution.
A lot of the material, the heavily Freudian father/penis symbolism, I have a tendency to read as corny. But the production is so physical and the dream elements are so heavy that within 10 minutes that all fell away. And that's a testament to all the actors but especially to Tanino's directing of his own script. This put me in another world in ways that only theater does and did it as well as I've ever seen it.