“The affluent society is a society of voyeurs. To each his own kaleidoscope,” as Raoul Vaneigem once wrote.
Kuro Tanino (b.1976) takes us into a voyeuristic kaleidoscope of sorts, though one that is queasy, amusing and baffling to be in. The psychiatrist-cum-theatre artist is a protean director of Ibsen, creator of his own Duchampian psychological fantasies, and a visual artist as well. His sets are integral parts of his vision, whether it be a kind of miniaturized “box theatre” forming a cabinet of curiosities representing the mental landscape of his characters, who are like patients in desperate search of a therapist.
His contribution to Festival/Tokyo 2009 Autumn’s program was The Town where the Sun and Underwear are Seen, a play which marked a rare attempt by Tanino to write a conventional script (which he has said was an unhappy experience). However, the star was still the set, a huge cross-section of a building where different rooms housed occupants each with their own sexual hang-ups. Ultimately, the main character was more concerned with euphoric distant opportunities for panchira than the alluring girl standing right by him.
Tanino is interested in creating tableaux, with the performers like chess pieces he moves around the board of his fertile mindscape. The overt emphasis — should we say “over-emphasis” — on the set does have ancillary effects, though. For example, The Town where the Sun and Underwear are Seen brought in a whole car at the end, only for it to be ultimately used for mere minutes. Don’t expect to be comfortable; Tanino’s favour for elaborate sets often means cramped, crowed theatre spaces.
Underground (2006, revived and reworked in 2010) was set in a hospital — like angura theatre, to which Tanino is clearly indebted, he likes to use “misfit” performers and set things in unlikely locations — in which an operation was carried out at times gruesomely over the course of the two hours, eventually culminating in organs being removed and the patient bursting into song. The claustrophobia of the continuing surgery made the tension almost unbearable as the play wore on — until the warbling finale allowed a welcome release of the energy.
Or even when he is working with larger venues, such as The Town Where the Sun and Underwear Are Seen (at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory) or Extase (at SPAC), he likes to find a space to write and work equivalent to the size, so his imagination can stretch to the physical scale he has to fill when the curtain goes up.
Like Jūrō Kara and his tent theatre (Tanino also once used a tent to create a play in a disused patch of land in Shinjuku), the plays of Niwa Gekidan Penino, the company that Tanino formed in 2000, are like Edo-era misemono, “exhibits” that were part of the carnival of old Tokyo’s street entertainment. Just as Shūji Terayama and Kara sought to bring the misemono back into the urban realm in the post-war period, so has Tanino inherited this mantel.
The freak show-esque nature of his plays, filled with dwarves, giants and weird creatures, is especially brought to the fore in his Hakobune (“ark”) series of plays, originally based in his Aoyama apartment that he and his Niwa Gekidan Penino team would illegally renovate into a theatre for each production. These included the remarkable Frustrating Picture Book for Adults, with its pair of pig and sheep characters dealing with the intrusion of a Gulliver-like boy student who emerges literally from the nether realm beneath their home.
Tanino’s latest, Box in the Big Trunk, inspired by the Duchamp piece “Box in a Valise”, has an epic Wunderkammer stage that rotates, each time taking the central male figure — the same student from the Frustrating Picture Book for Adults — through different mental and fantasy zones, a series of linked rooms populated with oddball creatures and copious amounts of phallic imagery. In many ways it forms a culmination of the other three Hakobune pieces till now, recycling the same characters and scenarios into one coherent experience whereby the student’s degraded sexual frustration and exam stress is explored with macabre humour. Ever wondered what it is like to hear Pachelbel’s “Canon” played on penis-shaped instruments? Or what a “restaurant in limbo” serves to its patrons? The gallimaufry of surreal dreams and symbols has been packed up into one trunk to be spilled out as it spins around and around.
The endless parade of cocks and copulation might weary some. A joke can outstay its welcome, especially when it is so visual and the characters so larger-than-life. But far from a merely infantile and gratuitous indulgence in comedy of the lavatorial kind, the situations and characters are inspired by a real patient Tanino once treated. The chronic and hyper-sexualized wilderness is then all the more powerful for being rooted in an acute, damaged case.
Recently staged at the Morishita Studio in Tokyo (the Hakobune has been banished from its original Aoyama home, it seems), it will be revived at the Kyoto Experiment in October.
Frustrating Picture Book for Adults was taken to Europe in 2009 and 2010, where it was greeted, said Tanino in an interview, with enthusiasm for the stark contrast it presented to typical continental social realism. The Room, Nobody Knows, one of the three elements featured in Box in the Big Trunk, toured Europe in 2012. It is scheduled to make its Stateside debut at the Walker Art Center and elsewhere in January 2014.
Further Reading Online:
Welcome to Tanino’s Hallucinatory Theatre
Theatre as a surrealist painting – on the latest work of Niwagekidan Penino
Creating Illusionary Spaces: The World of Kuro Tanino
Play of the Month: “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults”
Drama outsider takes a step into the theater