OzAsia Festival: The Dark Inn: Defeating ignorance

Keith Gallasch

OzAsia Artistic Director Joseph Mitchell’s third festival featured three superb theatrical works — W!ld Rice’s Hotel, Keiichiro Shibuya’s The End and Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Dark Inn — making my one-week visit supremely worthwhile, with the bonus of the Australian Art Orchestra’s Meeting Points series of wonderful cross-cultural collaborations. Fellow RealTime writers Chris Reid and Ben Brooker have made clear their praise for much else in the three-week festival that opens us up to works made here and in Asia that expand our sense of what is possible artistically and what we can learn culturally.

Two men, a son and his dwarf father, arrive at a remote hot springs country inn, named Avidya (ignorance), located, a narrator tell us, in Hell Valley. The pair have been invited to entertain the inn’s guests with their puppetry, but it turns out they’re not expected and that the owner is not present. An old woman is unhelpful, though father and son seem unfazed, even when they discover they’ve missed the last bus. The woman relents and offers them a room. Action to this point, and for much of The Dark Inn, moves at a leisurely, often less than everyday pace. The acting is low-key, voices quietly projected. We are compelled to look in on an unfamiliar world with few signs of the present, despite our being told it’s 2013.

The Dark Inn, Niwa Gekidan Penino, photo Shinsuke Sugino, OzAsia 2017

The intricately realistic timber-framed set revolves with cinematic verve from reception to bedrooms on two levels, to a changing room and then a rock-girded, steaming hot spring bath. Seen though a rear window is a persimmon tree, its leaf fall and flowering indicating the seasonal change pivotal to the play’s meanings, first unhurriedly revealed as the characters observe the social niceties; when they don’t, physical and emotional chaos ensue. While first expectations are that the father, Momofuku Kurata, and son, Ichiro, will fall prey to whatever absurdist situation they’ve found themselves in, in fact they will be catalysts for change, some of it already brewing.

The two-and-a-half hour play is not easily summarised, so I’ll follow one thread. A sense of growing unease is triggered in small increments. Kurata and Ichiro find a guest in their room, the blind Matsuo, who believes the hot spring will cure him. His earnest soul-seeking is deflated by the pair, Kurata bluntly hinting that masturbation might help and, before they are interrupted, asking if would he like to be touched. Matsuo wishes he could see the father and son; Kurata says, “I’m horrible, my son’s even more so.”

When father and son are cajoled into performing by two drunken geisha (resting at the inn in the off-season) who have entertained them with a “snappy” shamisen duet, the bright yellow puppet — a little larger than Kurata and with a big head and outsize hands — is slowly revealed. Kurata activates it, lunging about, mounting and being mounted by the creature and gasping with post-coital relief. Everyone’s shocked — the geishas, the bathroom assistant peering through the window, and Matsuo, who doesn’t like what he hears and flees the room. However, his curiosity persists; he seeks out the puppet and, horrified by what he finds, screams and curls up naked in the bathroom. But Matsuo’s already been dealt a blow by Ichiro when he tries to draw the young man into a discussion, in Buddhist terms, about escaping ignorance. Ichiro cuts him off; abstractions will not cure Matsuo. In the play’s climactic scene, Kuratu and Ichiro, about to leave the inn, invade the bathroom, where the guests are recovering from their diverse crises, with the puppet, revealing its huge penis. Matsuo vomits.

Takiko, the old woman, will call Ichiro “lightless” (effectively” ignorant”) for his treatment of the blind man, but come spring, Matsuo has left the inn on which he had become helplessly dependent. Ichiro reveals his own plight — “a life without choices,” he’s unschooled and unable to abandon his father, whom he treats with utmost deference. A rare smile passes between them as they leave the inn — perhaps a kind of ‘mission accomplished’ by two tricksters.

The Dark Inn, Niwa Gekidan Penino, photo Shinsuke Sugino, OzAsia 2017

Each of the inn’s residents has problems to resolve. The elder geisha plays mother to the younger but knows she must let her go, into the arms of a traditional bath attendant, a Nagashi (one of a dying breed), a giant, bumbling sexually repressed mute who has to comically fan his erection when Kurata undresses to bathe and lets down his long black locks. Takiko wanted to become a geisha in the 40s, learned the shamisen but WWII eventuated, she wasn’t pretty anyway and grew old and envious. We know least about the elegant, self-contained Kurata (Mame Yamada), but his liberating provocations are central to The Dark Inn. Ignorance of the body — a form of self-deception — and its needs are as fateful as ignorance of mind. Though not a Buddhist, writer-director Kurô Tanino said in an interview, “the characters are based on 12 Buddhist ideas, such as Avidya, ‘no light,’ which can mean no knowledge or being lost.”

The Dark Inn’s larger picture entails not only the ritual renewal of Spring — the younger geisha and the bath attendant have a baby and the other residents have returned to the world. However, there are no new guests and a new railway line threatens demolition; geishas, bath attendants and travelling puppeteers perhaps barely belong in the play’s 2013. The Dark Inn is neither defeatist nor wilfully optimistic; it is playfully pragmatic.

The production’s pacing is deeply engaging, its incremental surprises and escalating shocks bracing and rich in meaning. The performances are subtly informal and beautifully shaped across the play’s uninterrupted two-and-a-half hours. Set, lighting and sound design are superbly integrated. Director (and psychiatrist) Kurô Tanino’s cogent assemblage of the complex components of The Dark Inn yields a deeply memorable experience in which time is tellingly distended, opening up our attention and incisively putting ignorance to the test.

OzAsia: Niwa Gekidan Penino, The Dark Inn, writer, director Kurô Tanino, design Kurô Tanino, Michiko Inada, lighting Masayuke Abe, Kosuke Ashidano, sound design Koji Sato, Yoshihiro Nakamura, technical director Isao Hubo; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, 3-4 Oct

Top image credit: The Dark Inn, Niwa Gekidan Penino, photo Shinsuke Sugino, OzAsia 2017

17 October 2017