Japan's Dumb Type theater collective imagines a future beyond death

All is quiet and dark. A band of white light traces the curve of the backstage wall, appearing periodically and then disappearing with a faint electronic blip, occasionally revealing a man who stands perfectly still, ghostly, undisturbed by the split-second flash behind him. Eventually the light becomes a little more irregular and then it is gone. The absence of life is palpable. A plug has been pulled, a heart monitor shut off, a body has turned to walk away in grief. Now a question dangles in the sterile air: What happens next? Is there a bright white light and a tunnel to follow? Or is there nothing at all?

Neither Takao Kawaguchi nor Shiro Takatani of Dumb Type, Japan's acclaimed experimental theater group performing this weekend at the Guthrie Lab, knows the answer, but they're willing to guess in [OR], a 1997 work exploring the border between life and death. Interviewed by phone before a performance at Seattle's On the Boards, performer Kawaguchi, speaking for himself as well as for artistic director Takatani, says the sensory overload presented by the evening-length work is actually a rather insane attempt to imagine the unimaginable. Even the title of the work has multiple meanings, reflecting the collective's willingness to accept more than one possible outcome. "It could stand for 'operating room,' but it also means 'zero radius,' the center of the circle that you know mathematically is there but you can never see it," posits Kawaguchi with a professorial cadence. "Computer language consists of zero and the number one, representing a binary system that is either on or off. Then it can mean either A or B. That idea has a conceptually important role in this piece."

Still with us? The members of Dumb Type, a troupe of performers, modern and Butoh dancers, video artists, composers, painters, sculptors, and architects, are certainly a cerebral lot, but [OR] taps into some very human fears using some of the most technically sophisticated means of theatrical expression, not to mention a lengthy research process. "We had more or less a year of discussion, and that's when we came up with the theme," Kawaguchi recalls. "We derived lots of references from philosophy, literature, and computer ideas. Some people collected emotions and movements from daily life. Then we explored all the different angles, which took a long time."

Afterlife: The Japanese performance troupe Dumb Type walks through the proverbial white tunnel in [OR]
Afterlife: The Japanese performance troupe Dumb Type walks through the proverbial white tunnel in [OR]

The result is truly unlike anything else seen onstage. Strobe lighting, "supertechno" music, and minimalist movement occur against a stark backdrop. It is an assault on the senses and belief systems, all set within a clinical environment. "We deal with the phenomenon of death, and the place where death is dealt with the most is in a hospital," says Kawaguchi. "We wanted to set the stage in white, white floor, and white screen. It's like a snowstorm. In the middle of it you lose your sense of orientation, your sense of distance, which we imagine is similar to our relationship to death." An edge of sinister conflict exists in the piece as well, especially in a world where cryogenics and cloning may soon dictate when life begins and ends. As in the 1991 anime classic Roujin-Z, in which an elderly woman in a hospital bed assumes apocalyptic powers, Dumb Type seems to probe how technology might come to define the human experience.

It's another question that may have no answer, but this group remains unperturbed by the unknowable. Founded in 1984 on the campus of Kyoto University of Arts by the multimedia artist Teiji Furuhashi and a collective of students interested in making what Kawaguchi terms "borderless work," Dumb Type has evolved into Japan's best-known performance-art troupe. Although Furuhashi succumbed to AIDS in 1995, his work has continued under Takatani's leadership, with the company members constantly involved in collaboration. Influenced by artists like Laurie Anderson, Dumb Type has a technical edge that seems altogether appropriate to our computer-driven times. The effect recalls Savage Aural Hotbed and Survival Research Laboratories, with a light show added on--a potent mixture that might give pause to sensitive types. Sensation addicts, on the other hand, should find a jolting theatrical fix in this production. "In Madrid the theater where we performed was in a building with a hotel and residences nearby. The sound made a big repercussion in the neighborhood!" laughs Kawaguchi.

[OR] represents Dumb Type's first performance in the American Midwest, and Kawaguchi expects audiences will react to the work as others have internationally--in distinctly personal ways. We all die alone, as the saying goes. "Throughout history everybody has tried to define death," observes Kawaguchi, accepting the quandary as a source of madness. "Religion, philosophy, the sciences, medicine, superstition. Our basic standpoint is that death is indefinable, and that impossibility is something we are crazy about!"

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