Japan Society Returns to Live, Onsite Theater with Kuro Tanino’s VR Event

The Dark Master

Wednesday, June 23 through Monday, June 28

Japan Society – 333 E. 47th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)

Admission: $25/$20 Japan Society members (Tickets for all shows are currently SOLD OUT, but please visit Japan Society’s website or call the Box Office at 212-715-1258 to see if there have been returns or cancellations.)

This summer Japan Society offers an unconventional presentation of psychiatrist-turned-director/playwright Kuro Tanino’s The Dark Master.

This in-person virtual reality theater event, performed for just ten audience members at a time, will play 21 performances from Wednesday, June 23 through Monday, June 28. Inspired by an indie manga, this immersive and humorously dark experimental theater piece engages the audience with sights, sounds and smells. Through Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, headphones, and live on-stage cooking, the piece positions each audience member in “first-person perspective” as the play’s protagonist, an unassuming patron of a Japanese diner.

Performed by Tanino’s experimental theater company Niwa Gekidan Penino, the story depicts the strange, symbiotic relationship that develops between the customer and the restaurant’s owner-chef, simply called the “Master.” Borrowing the dramaturgy of first-person video games, the audience experiences first-hand how the Master’s all-consuming persona highjacks the identity of his victims in a novel production that collapses the border between reality and illusion.

“. . . part fable, part dream play, part David Lynch surrealism” (The Australian)

As you, the viewer, walk through the doors of this imaginary eatery, the Master invites you to take over as chef and proprietor of the restaurant. From his hiding place in an upper story, the Master monitors your every movement via hundreds of cameras concealed in the diner and trains you in the art of cooking Japanese comfort foods with detailed instructions that he delivers through a tiny wireless earpiece. In this immersive theater event, the auditory experience is delivered via headphones, and an accompanying olfactory experience is served up by the actual dishes being prepared in real-time by stagehands.

The Dark Master ©Japan Society
The Dark Master ©Japan Society
The Dark Master ©Japan Society

As you begin to gain confidence in your culinary skills, the restaurant attracts a large clientele of regulars. However, beneath the glitz and often comic surface of this rustic local eatery, the Master’s incessant directions slowly begin to warp your sense of autonomy. These intimations “lead us down paths which are both sensual and disturbing, burlesque and demonic,” notes the Festival d’Automne à Paris.

The Dark Master ©Japan Society

Kuro Tanino, who graduated from medical school and practiced psychiatry for several years, has established a reputation for creating unique theater works that depict hidden human emotions through a surrealistic story using cynical humor. He first created The Dark Master in 2003, and in 2016, he completely changed the set design and ending of the story for performances in Tokyo and Sendai. In 2018, the production toured to the Festival d’Automne à Paris, and the following year to OzAsia Festival in Adelaide, Australia.

Since then, Tanino has developed a few different versions, with an ambition to make each version distinct by incorporating issues unique to the presenting cities and regions. In this new adaptation born out of the global pandemic, Tanino uses VR headsets for a limited audience of ten people per viewing. In lieu of an actual earpiece, each audience member is provided a pair of headphones to listen to the Master’s every command, inducing feelings of both sensory immersion and isolation. Plastic “one-way mirrors” also separate audience members from one another while they’re seated along an extended table, mimicking the counter in the diner where even the aromas of delectable dishes as they’re being prepared are part of the experience.

The VR experience of The Dark Master. ©Keizo Maeda

Niwa Gekidan Penino generated significant buzz in their 2014 U.S. debut at Japan Society, with The Room Nobody Knows. With this new presentation, I hope to further their status and reputation in this country. We are extremely happy to welcome audiences back into our building for Kuro’s innovative and immersive in-person VR performance. From its intimate scale to the sensorial nature of the piece—along with its haunting and thrilling plot—this one-of-a-kind theater event seems tailor-made for our return to live, onsite theater.”
– Yoko Shioya, Japan Society Artistic Director


Originally slated for 16 performances, public demand led to Japan Society adding five more. Tickets are currently SOLD OUT, but please visit Japan Society’s website or call the Box Office at 212-715-1258 to see if there have been returns or cancellations.

Wednesday, June 23 at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 24 at 5:00 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:30 p.m.
Friday, June 25 at 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m.
Saturday, June 26 at 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m., and 9:00 p.m.
Sunday, June 27 at 12:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 5:00 p.m., and 7:00 p.m.
Monday, June 28 at 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 7:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m.

Please note: Performances will begin promptly, and there will be no late admittance. This program is for audiences 18 years and older due to mature content (depiction of sex act and suggested nudity).

The running time is 45 minutes. The Dark Master was originally performed in Japanese and then dubbed in English for this accompanying audio.

About Kuro Tanino

Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1976, founded his theater company Niwa Gekidan Penino in 2000 with members of the Showa University drama club while he was in medical school. Both his parents are doctors, and he is also a licensed psychiatrist, although he no longer practices. He is the representative, playwright, and director of Niwa Gekidan Penino, whose theatrical works grow out of his imaginings and obsessions and are staged in spaces carefully designed to the finest detail. He is also a sculptor and painter and is highly involved in the stage designs of each production.

Tanino’s plays have been nominated as finalists for the Kishida Drama Award and performed in theaters and festivals around the globe. For other companies, he has directed Ibsen’s Vildanden, Chekhov!?, a commission he wrote for the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth in 2011, among other plays.  According to Le Monde, “Kuro Tanino is a multi-faceted artist who plays with humor, flirts with surrealism, and explores the deepest abysses of the human psyche.”

About Niwa Gekidan Penino

Niwa Gekidan Penino strives to create freewheeling productions based on an abstract concept of “the garden” (niwa and gekidan mean “garden” and “theater company” in Japanese) and aims for a “form beyond formula” by transcending the conventions of theater through performances in unconventional spaces such as Tanino’s own apartment (Atelier Hakobune), an outdoor tent, and installation-like environments.

Niwa Gekidan Penino productions are known for their complex and surrealist stage sets. The company has been invited to perform throughout Japan and has appeared at festivals and venues abroad.

The company made its U.S. debut in 2014 with The Room Nobody Knows, in a four-city tour produced by Japan Society, which kicked off in New York City as part of The Under the Radar Festival (read my review of it here.)