Theatre as a surrealist painting – on the latest work of Niwagekidan Penino

One of the stage productions that gathered a lot of attention in the first half of this year was Ookina toranku no naka no hako 大きなトランクの中の箱 (“The Box in a Big Trunk”) of Niwagekidan Penino, performed from April 12th through 29th at Morishita Studio. This theatre company has been active since 2000 and is famous for works in which human obsessions and illusions are given shape through extremely elaborate stage settings.

The master mind behind the signature style of Niwagekidan Penino’s performances is director Tanino Kurō, who is a licensed psychiatrist with a vivid interest in the arts of painting and sculpture. There is an obvious tendency in contemporary theatre towards minimalist settings, with a preference for few objects on stage or none. But Tanino Kurō is totally free of this pattern, going as far as conceiving the performances from an aesthetic perspective with less regard to the script. As a result, the stage setting looks like a surrealist work of art, with a multitude of details and objects suggestive of a cluttered human psyche.

“The Box in a Big Trunk” brings together three of the company’s previous works: Chiisana Limbo Resutoran “The Small Limbo Restaurant” (2004), Iraira suru otona no ehon “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults” (2008) and Daremo shiranai anata no heya “The Room Nobody Knows” (2012). These works had been performed in the company’s atelier, named Hakobune (The Ark), located in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, but the imminent renewal of the old building forced the company to move out. This was the incentive for them to “pack” all the props previously used in one “big trunk”, i.e. a new work, and the feat of incorporating three stage sets into one was technically possible through the use of a revolving stage.

The red thread binding the disparate settings into one coherent whole is the story of a high school student in his forties, learning for the university admission exams, while suppressing his emotional and sexual needs. From early on the man’s complicated feelings towards his father, a mix of admiration, disgust, obligation and fear, become apparent and they provide the key to understand the later development of the story.

From his small, poor lit room packed with books up to the ceiling, the man escapes into a sort of dream world, inhabited by two peculiar creatures which remind one of a sheep and a pig (the setting from “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults”). The feeling of guilt at the sexual arousal those two cause him makes the man escape again in another world – a restaurant decorated with heads of wild animals, where he is served grotesque dishes (“The Small Limbo Restaurant”). In despair, the man’s mind tries to find shelter in yet another world – this time it is a room full of penis-shaped objects (“The Room Nobody Knows”). Here he realizes that what he is running away from is the image of his father, which starts to obsess him and appear in each and every one of his inner worlds. By the end, the man is running in delusion from reality to dream, and from dream to dream, losing his mind. As the revolving stage rotates, the sets change before the spectators’ eyes, enhancing the feeling of despair on the side of the main character, who runs like mad from one illusionary world to another without getting anywhere.

The man ends up castrated emotionally by a larger than life father figure, but director Tanino Kurō does a fine work in avoiding to turn the subject into a tragedy. Actually, the amazing feature of this story is the light-hearted humor which permeates every detail of the concept. Although the director states that he is not interested in bringing psychological qualms on the stage, his theatre obviously draws inspiration from his work as a psychiatrist. However, the allusions to the conscious and unconscious layers of the psyche, as well as the subtle use of archetypal figures are filtered through a broad artistic vision and serve only to enrich the theatrical expression.

Not only the remarkable stage setting, but also the skill of the four actors – Yamada Ikuma (the son), Iida Ichigo (the father), Seguchi Taeko (the sheep) and Shimada Momoi (the pig) – deserves a special mention. While the first two get stripped off their individual characteristics in the process of acting out the Father and the Son figures, the latter two achieve the feat of transgressing humanity, or better said, of leaving it far behind, for their animal roles look just like living caricatures. Rarely do we encounter actors, whose skill lets you see the role itself, making you forget about the strings by which that role is operated.

Apart from being highly artistic, Niwagekidan Penino’s theatrical style is original, daring and free of inhibitions. You can get an insight of Niwagekidan Penino’s works by watching this trailer of “The Room Nobody Knows”, a work that was warmly received in Europe last year: