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Spoiler Alert: Penis Penis Penis

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The […]

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Photo: Shinsuke Suginou

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Hiponymous share their perspective on Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

A wildly entertaining trip written and directed by Kuro Tanino, The Room Nobody Knows, performed by Tokyo-based theater company Niwa Gekidan Penino, is a partially dissected dream, full of blatant and elusive symbolism. The set design is based off of the traditional Japanese Noh stage, but developed as a top/bottom duplex, squeezing the actors and action into comical proportions. The main character, Kenji, explores the dream-like apartment with desire and whimsy, luring the viewers into every nook and cranny of the architecture, which glorifies phallic, masculine forms. A small cannon sits in the corner. The doorknobs, coffeetable, chairs, and erect holders for the Shakuhachi flutes are all shaped like penises. And then there are the handmade penis figurines of Kenji’s beloved older brother in four archetypal renderings: “The avant-garde you, the revolutionary you, the feminine you, the pop you”. Kenji’s idolatry of his brother becomes an obsession and preparing for his older brother’s birthday completely distracts him from his high school studies, which he has been dizzily tending to for 27 years.

The upper room of the duplex is occupied by Kenji’s alter egos, one with hog ears and the other with sheep horns. We meet these characters first as they assist in assembling the penis power room. They move through the tight quarters, revealing tableaus like pieces in a game of chess. They furnish the older brother’s birthday party with erect penises, as gift offerings, and are a comedic presence as the “Elves of Unpaid Labor”. There is nothing subtly phallic, only obvious, graphically polished models of penises with perfect curvature. The mounted room of phallic power is a blatant depiction of what are often subliminally placed markers of a culture’s patriarchal agenda. And yet, as a culture, we also habitually laugh at the sight of penis forms. With a phallic-filled stage and Kenji’s dueling alter egos, Tanino’s psychological fantasy world becomes an environment rich with duality and sexual frustration.

The ways in which gender and sexuality are explored are stimulating…intellectually, that is. On one hand, it is very enjoyable to watch the two brothers express affection, amorously, earnestly pressing their bodies into one another, holding faces in hands, looking into one another’s eyes with declarations of love. On the other hand, the scenes are ripe with taboo (homoerotic sibling love), and the exposed vulnerability that comes along with that keeps the audience from responding too favorably and the performers from going much further than bold verbal and physical insinuations.

While American audiences are used to witnessing theater in which the Asian or Asian-American male body is often thrown into one-dimensional, emasculated roles, the Walker audience becomes privy to refreshingly complex representations of Asian men through Tanino’s direction of these two brothers. This is a play that tells the story of two bodies, full of agency and yet fraught with deviant tendencies that are personal to them and informed by their past accomplishments and future ambitions. Of course, on top of all that, it’s all just a dream. And yet, dreams are linked to subconscious truths. Thus, it’s easy to see that the monumental things in Kenji’s waking life will remain erect.

Niwa Gekidan Penino performs The Room Nobody Knows January 16-18 in the McGuire Theater.