What they say it is:
Two brothers inhabit a mysterious, dreamlike apartment. On the day of the elder brother’s birthday, the younger, who is supposed to be studying for college entrance exams, is preoccupied with creating unusual objects for the celebration. Meanwhile, in the upper room, the younger brother’s alter-egos take the form of creatures and help with the party preparations.
The description above, a cut-and-paste from the show’s own advertisements, is important to read. Why? Because this short and ambiguous blurb does a better job of ‘explaining’ the show than the show itself was able, or willing, to do.
If I sound hostile, it’s probably because I wanted to like this show so badly. I’m an enormous fan of abstract and surrealist art, whether we’re talking about Dali’s nightmare visions or Terry Gilliam’s cacophonic films. I enjoy books that raise questions without pat answers, and my favorite form of music is unstructured improvisation. Therefore, when I saw the promotional photographs for tRNK, all of them depicting a colorful, dreamlike world–and read descriptions of an undersized stage featuring surprises and trapdoors–I was instantly sold. I even groveled for a personal invitation to the venue’s Twitter account, because Tara wasn’t as convinced that this production was worth seeing (I believe her original reaction was “Looks like a bunch of penises on stage” ). When FringeArts ‘tweeted’ back at me, encouraging Tara and I to attend, she caved, and we went.
Free beer–I’m a fan, so things started out well as we rolled into FringeArts on Columbus Boulevard. The staff handed out complimentary Sapporo bottles to all drinking-age attendees, and our general admission seats included small cones of Japanese candies for our enjoyment. We grabbed space in the 3rd row above the floor, which turned out to be the ideal location. The stage (which was actually more of a box) was mounted at least 15 feet above the ground, set into a blackout wall. A pair of two small compartments (approximately 4 feet high, and perhaps 20 feet long, stacked one atop another) comprised the entire performance area, creating the effect of a (very odd) apartment hanging in space.
Within this abstract apartment, the scenery was wonderfully vivid, combining influences from Gaudi’s architecture (the upper floors’ ceiling and walls bulged with shimmering blue, curving tile) and a medical lab (the lower floor was covered in white tile, recalling antiseptic prison showers, or horror-movie torture room). In fact, the show’s greatest strength, honestly, was it’s visual prowess. The oddball, hung-in-space set merges the ‘real’ world (an almost-normal apartment) and the lurking subconscious (a basement filled with curios, memories, and uncomfortable dreams). In terms of pure staging, A Room Nobody Knows was a complete success.
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about the narrative. If the show’s intended message is anything other than “the subconscious contains a wild stew of conflicting emotions and Freudian confusion”, then I must have missed it. As before (and discussed in several other blog posts), I’m totally “into” non-linear storytelling, abstract metaphor, and ambivalent, inconclusive plots. I’m completely comfortable with artwork that wants to say something so complicated or unusual that the means of the telling require atypical methods. But, I’m forced to admit . . . I still want my art TO say something. If the message is “there is no message”–excellent! Just clue me in. DON’T, however, bait me with suggestions of meaning or ambivalent symbolism, don’t make gestures toward grand ideas but then fail to explore them, and don’t ask me to enjoy an insistently abstract piece without giving me some in-road (or advance warning) that the authors planned it this way. Sitting through A Room Nobody Knows 60-minute run time, felt, at times, felt a bit like being trapped at a cocktail party with someone who wants to tell you every detail about an insane dream they had last night.
I don’t feel bad for saying that a good storyteller should prepare their audience with some frame of reference–is the tale you are telling meant to be funny? Disturbing? Symbolic, somehow, of a societal problem or unconscious revelation? Sadly, this show wasn’t staged as an audience<>performer dialog . . . so, unlike an overlong, awkward cocktail conversation, I couldn’t interrupt the show to ask questions, or even excuse myself to the restroom. On one hand, I was glad that aRNK dangled a variety of intellectual concepts (the most prevalent topics seemed to include sibling rivalry, haphazard fluctuations of dreams and desire, and Freud’s conception of familial relationships), but unless I completely missed some major element of the show, the elements seemed so disconnected from each other that I just started to feel frustrated and, well, bored. Given the show’s visual flair and humorous undertones, I really doubt that this was the intended reaction.
Maybe I was just biased because my legs felt a bit cramped in the seats we chose, or perhaps I had some lingering reservation about the ticket price for this short show (at $30 per ticket, we paid about fifty cents per minute to see a very cool, artistic set populated by a hodgepodge of semi-random, entertaining, and ultimately confusing, characters). In any case, I’m writing off A Room Nobody Knows as a room I wish I’d enjoyed, since it had a lot going for it. Some audience members surely got more out of it than I did.
Hey Clay…not to gloat, but I think you just admitted your wife was right . . .YES!!!! Turns out, it was just a bunch of penises on stage, the show’s organizers knew it, and they decided to bribe us with beer, candy, and Twitter invites. (In fairness, all this was very was nice of them, but I don’t think it improved the quality of the show.)
As above, set design certainly stood out in this production–the trap doors, mosaics and crazy penis decorations adorned the colorful fantasy environment. I can’t imagine having to be the one responsible for shipping all of the sizable props from Japan to America, not to mention setting it all up – I don’t know how they were able to support the mass of an entire stage (even a small one) in a second story environment.
My summary will be short because Clay has done a great job describing it. However, he didn’t talk much about the characters that inhabited the show, so I’ll explore that aspect. To open the play, there were two humanoid creatures–one pig-like and one goat-like–that chattered, sang and interacted with each other. I wondered if these beings might have been elements of Japanese folklore that I am unfamiliar with? I also wondered if a clash of cultural references clouded my understanding of this highly Freudian, sexualized play. Between the two human characters, there were definitively incestuous references, but it was never clear if they were actually related to an “older brother” or the characters reference to himself. Meanwhile, was the man-goat character depressed, which therefore caused him to want to sleep all the time? Are the characters actually homosexual, the sexual tension is irrelevant to the sibling question . . . it is actually a tension related to other men?
If it’s not clear, I was left with a lot of loose threads and unanswered questions at the end of the show. I wished there had been one of FringeArt’s frequent Q&A sessions with the director or actors, so that perhaps some of my confusions could have been addressed. Or that I’d just had a good Japanese friend that could have told me about whatever cultural narratives I might have missed in the show.