Welcome to Tanino’s Hallucinatory Theatre

An English program notes prepared for Niwagekidan Penino’s “The Room, Nobody Knows,” toured in Luzern, Switzerland, and Helsinki, Finnland in 2012.

Like many great theatre directors, Kuro Tanino is a clairvoyant. Unlike many, however, he has created the sets, scenery, and properties of his theatre company, Niwagekidan Penino, since its founding in 2001. Tanino’s small theatre, which accommodates no more than thirty people, is an illegally converted apartment in an old residential building in Aoyama, one of the most fashionable streets of Tokyo. More than a month before the productions, Tanino and a few company members begin furtively to bring various objets trouvés to it, to assemble mechanized devices, and to do carpentry, fearful that annoyed neighbors may report suspicious midnight constructions to the police. (Do not be alarmed: one resident, curious to know what was going on, attended a performance and came back home greatly impressed by Tanino’s artwork.)
Tanino’s monomaniac craftsmanship is enabled by his literal in-residence commitment to the apartment theatre. Generally staying up until the wee hours, this perfectionist continues to make subtle, almost indiscernible, last-minute adjustments so as to maximize the effects that he intends. He tinkers with not just lifeless objects. One actor likens Tanino’s rehearsals to military drills, since the director makes actors repeat their performances without explaining how they can improve, until he finds them satisfying. Perhaps he himself does not know how they can. Just as painters conduct endless experiments with compositions and colors before they are finally satisfied, Tanino, who had once aspired to be a professional painter before he pursued a medical career, puts in a lot of time casting his wild, shifting imagination into a mold.
“The Room, Nobody Knows” (2012), a fifty-minute Wunderkammer experience, is the third work created and premièred in The Ark, the apt name given to Tanino’s apartment theatre by Yukichi Matsumoto, another representative Japanese theatre artist with a visual slant. Just as in “A Small Restaurant in Limbo” (2004) and “An Adult Picture Book That Itches” (2008), the minuscule stage abounds in strange living things that may or may not have survived a catastrophic event. As the title of the first play suggests, the characters may be already dead and wandering eternally, yearning for salvation, since they look inert and inanimate, like objects whose presences sometimes seems to overwhelm the subhuman figures on stage.
Although all the cranky characters and the outlandish mise-en-scène are fathered by Tanino, the perennial student, the pig and the sheep, the main characters of “The Room, Nobody Knows” and “An Adult Picture Book That Itches,” have models. A psychiatrist who has just given up a practice to focus more on his career as a director, Tanino had a client, a high-school student, who complained of visual hallucinations. After repeated failures to pass the entrance examination to a top-class university, the client was induced to see a pig and a sheep where there were not any. Imagining the psychic burdens that the client must have suffered under stress, Tanino created the two plays as he would set up sand play therapy sessions, which allow clients to see their problems more objectively in miniature replicas of real life situations.
In both “An Adult Picture Book That Itches” and “The Room, Nobody Knows,” the perennial student, played by the middle-aged Ikuma Yamada in his ill-fitting high school uniform, keeps failing university entrance exams until his early forties, but he still listens to a radio course and opens a drill book, however absentmindedly. He imagines a pig with circle eyeglasses and sheep with a grotesquely protruding tooth, both of which speak as unnaturally as the cartoon characters in animations of fairy tales. Their presence indicates that he wishes, on the one hand, to belong to a carefree and sex-free world of children. On the other hand, the student is beset by his own, unsatisfied sexual desires, the more so because he is supposed to concentrate on his studies. Thus, the pig and sheep tend a variety of penis-like objects that dominate the upper stage, unconsciously seeking to combine these two incompatible desires.
In “The Room, Nobody Knows,” Tanino takes a new turn. As if to demonstrate the hypothesis of a heterosexual–homosexual continuum, the perennial student directs the object of his sexual fantasy to his older brother, whom he adores and reveres with all the innocence of a young child. His sexual desires are polygonal; homosexual, incestuous, and fetishistic, since he caresses the four plastic-head dummies that he has created as presents for his brother’s birthday; he places different wigs on them, raving about the beauties of his brother. The four dummies with appropriate wigs illustrate, respectively, how artistic, how revolutionary, how feminine, and how pop he is. With its two-tiered set that is a thinly disguised epitome of the Freudian structure of the psyche, “The Room, Nobody Knows” shows that one’s sexual desires are more complex and interconnected than one tends to think.

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