Theater is confusing this summer. As the return to live life accelerates, many productions conceived under previous limitations are emerging in a world that seems different than expected.
Last week I saw two shows that exemplify the extremes of this mixed moment. One, “The Dark Master,” a psychological drama from Japan, was supposed to be part of a live American tour, but emerged as something remarkably different, remote but in person, with virtual reality glasses. The other, a revival of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Serious,” was supposed to take place in a socially distant and open store, but would end up tightly closed in an indoor theater, with everyone breathing the same air, still that through masks. .
That the two productions were moving in opposite directions (one toward stricter precautions, one toward looser) may be more than an accident of time; it seems to be an example of content that calls for formation. “The Dark Master” is as harsh and antisocial as “Earnest” is dizzying and garrulous, but both productions are intense experiences, in part, because the changing terrain of coronavirus precautions has made them more of themselves.
I have trouble imagining how “The Dark Master,” which I saw on PS21 in Chatham, New York, and which continues this week at the Japan Society in Manhattan, could never have been performed live. Adapted and directed by Kuro Tanino from an indie manga, it stars Kiyofumi Kaneko as the owner and chef of a restaurant on the wall of Tokyo. Throughout the play, he forcibly delivers the business to a customer, demonstrating his best recipes and worst wrinkles.
I say Kaneko is the protagonist, but that’s not entirely accurate. As is done through virtual reality glasses, “The Dark Master” now stars in you. Each member of the audience (there is room for 10 pods of one or two people) effectively has the client put into service; without really moving, you find yourself involved in the action: cooking, eating, sleeping. Kaneko (who, like the other actors, doubled his lines in English) doesn’t exist in the actual space of the show, yet he leans towards you so close that he can feel the need, like me , to remove the chair. At the same time, the smells of garlic and squeaky steak cheer you up closer.
Virtual reality is still a play in the theater, not really mature as an expressive device, and yet its use in “The Dark Master” emphasizes the isolation and interiority of the story and also of life during the pandemic. Kaneko may put you in your face and later it might bother you to find a prostitute you hire doing even more, but I found myself fascinated by my own strange hands, which of course weren’t really mine, as I could tell. for her manicure. The food pointing at my mouth seemed to hit my sternum; I won’t even talk about the bathroom.
While he wasn’t always sure who he was or what was going on, he seemed to be part of the point. Alienation and paranoia, exhausted themes of avant-garde theater, returned to relevance in “The Dark Master,” partly because of Kaneko’s commitment to the material, but partly because of mine. (Or yours.) Removing all external sensation (not just wearing glasses, but also headphones) has the effect of detaching you from the batteries of your own personality.
This effect is reinforced by the theater, a beautiful reconfigurable interior and exterior space that seems to have landed like an exotic bird amidst a 100-acre old apple orchard in this small town in the Hudson Valley. It’s not the first place you’ll expect with cutting-edge performance, though PS21 offers little else. In “The Dark Master,” the contrast between the fragrant astilbe fields and the piercing prison of your own perceptions makes you both feel a little more precious.
The Unicorn Theater, where I saw a preview of the Berkshire Theater Group’s “Earnest” production, couldn’t be more different: a traditional auditorium with 122 seats near the gift shops and galleries tony Main Street. Mass. If the characters in the play Londoners with Large Country Houses were contemporary Americans rather than Victorians, this is where they could spend the summer. Wilde’s comedy, directed by playwright David Auburn, thus seems like night entertainment in a local house, if its owners were people of exceptional ingenuity.
Wilde’s ingenuity, however, is complicated; it is found on mother rock of great moral weight, but, if played with some heavy, it falls. The four lovers are entangled in networks of superfluity: Gwendolyn and Cicely are mostly concerned with marrying a man named Earnest; Algernon and Jack are obsessed with cupcakes and cucumber sandwiches, but they have to believe these things are of the utmost importance. And Lady Bracknell, who has absolute faith in her own values, must dispense justice as if it were a meringue.
At the first preview I attended, the Auburn delivery company was approaching the right balance. Like Bracknell, the great Harriet Harris continued to apply the final layer of comedy to her detailed and nuanced interpretation, but she already made a compelling dragon. By contrast, lovers (Rebecca Brooksher, Claire Saunders, Shawn Fagan, and Mitchell Winter) were still too focused on comedy to fully achieve it, missing opportunities to let the repercussions of their actions sink. When the lovers of 1895 first kissed, it was certainly no joke; it was a revelation.
My feeling that this cast will soon completely inhabit Wilde’s ingenuity is based in part on the way the show already marks its laws with Act III and in part on its completely successful design. Bill Clarke’s simple, elegant ensemble, swirls from all over Art Nouveau in black and white and sheer curtains, suggests the finesse of taste that writing requires. Swinging to the other side, Hunter Kaczorowski’s outrageous dresses (Gwendolyn wears a three-foot hat in the country and Algernon, with some rhinestone fiber pumps) give way due to the hilarity.
The joy that comes from the intensity of these choices, whether in design or acting (or, as in “The Dark Master,” in conceptualization), is what we are going to experience theater for. To the extent that the pandemic has denied us this euphoria, we cannot get rid of it too soon.
But this intermediate period has its own euphoria. Going back to the hard stuff after a diet that has too often consisted of eating comfortably and going back to the theaters where people gather and feel, not just listening to each other, laughing, is their own source of excitement. When the artistic director of the Berkshire Theater Group, Kate Maguire, appeared in front of “Earnest” to make the usual pre-announcements about emergency exits, she first started to cry. She was not the only one.
The Dark Master
Performances June 23-28 at the Japan Society, Manhattan; japansociety.org
The importance of being serious
Until July 10 at the Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge, Mass .; berkshiretheatregroup.org