NIWA GEKIDAN PENINO–“Out There” at The Walker

One of the "Elves" haunting "Niwa Gekidan Penino"

One of the “Elves” haunting “Niwa Gekidan Penino”

I think I’m going to stick with the theme of upended expectations while reviewing this year’s “Out There” Series at The Walker.  Last night’s production, Kuro Tanino’s “Nikwa Gekidan Penino” (The Room Nobody Knows) was the poster boys (boys?) for that concept.  Starting with seating the audience on the stage, which at this point in my history of theatre-going brings on a very cautious excitement (as I alluded to last week, experimentation is no guarantor of success), “Nikwa” jerked my expectations around in many ultimately fascinating ways.

Though we realized later we could’ve simply walked onto the stage through the downstage curtain, the Walker staff led us down a brief roundabout hallway that ended behind very high series of risers.  These risers faced what appeared to be an oversized puppet theatre set into a wall, guarded by a rippling red curtain.  This slight turn in orientation allowed for my first note (“Where the hell are we, exactly”)—furthered in spirit by the stylistic choice of sending us onto the stage to sit, only to find a traditional seating arrangement waiting for us when we got there.

The Lynchian feel of that red curtain shifted as the show began toward the world of Matthew Barney, as only slightly human creatures went about their daily ablutions in a meticulously designed sort-of-living-room, augmented in many different ways by many different kinds of, uhm, penises.  Not surprisingly, some people in the audience found this high-larious—what it was, because of its aesthetic, was a glimpse into another world, a world inspired, if you read your program, by the home environment Mr Tanino grew up in, an entire houseful of psychiatrists.  This was at the same time obvious and impossible to know unless you read it first (at which point my snarky playwright brain thought, “well, that’s easy—why worry about dramatizing backstory, theme or any of that tedious stuff—just put in a program note”).

Regardless of whether you “got” it or not, this exquisitely designed alternate universe was a gorgeous piece of art.  Which is not the same as saying it was a gorgeous piece of theatrical art—I found myself getting restless pretty early on, and reliving many impassioned re-hearsal conversations from my work with various devised groups around town (mostly along the lines of—“you can’t reject narrative and expect the audience to appreciate the piece in the same way”)—

Then, once again, I got my intellectual ass handed to me by the “Out There” series.

What transpires next I will not deign spoil, but suffice to say, you will never hear Pachelbel’s Canon in quite the same way ever again.  In fact, the live version of the Canon performed by the characters in the piece will restore not only your faith in theatre but your faith in humanity itself.  At the risk of damning with extravagant praise, it’s one of those moments that creates an unmistakable sense of lift, as if somehow everything around it—audience, risers, actors, set—is about to rocket off into space.  By all standards of human reality it should not exist, and therefore, it is a marvel.

This is not to say I learned my lesson about narrative—at least not yet.  The few crumbs of character and plot thrown our way (which again I will not reveal), were more than enough to change the entire tenor of the experience.  At this point we don’t need very much to hang onto, but we do need something.  Slight as it was, a story appeared, and—to my thinking anyway—this allowed Mr Tanino more freedom to play, not less.

But then, as if to challenge even that thought, a bit of traditional plotting at the very end was the most disappointing moment in the piece.

And so, a rollercoaster of expectations.  If you are the kind of person who enjoys a good rollercoaster, see if there are any tickets left.  If not—don’t worry, word is the Guthrie’s doing “My Fair Lady” in the Spring.

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