VR heaset

“Dark Master” up close and virtually personal

Cooking meat
(c) Louis-Hansel-Shotosoflouis / unsplush

The globe-trotting theatre playwright and director Kuro Tanino is currently presenting a new, VR (virtual reality) version of his 2003 masterpiece “Dark Master” through Oct. 18 in the East Studio at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre — where audiences experience the play using individual headsets.

One of Tanino’s most popular and famous works, “Dark Master” has been rerun several times in Japan by his Niwa Gekidan Penino company, who also staged it in Paris in 2018 and in Adelaide, Australia, in 2019.

Based on a short comic book of the same name, “Dark Master” tells the story of a young man who goes into a small, scruffy restaurant owned by a shabby middle-aged man who runs it alone. Within minutes, the owner asks him if he would like to run the restaurant instead of him. He doesn’t need to know how to cook, he says, because he will instruct him in detail through a microphone in his private upstairs room.

The customer, who is unemployed, is pleased to accept the offer, and as the restaurant is soon making lots of money the owner — aka the Dark Master — is delighted. But mysteriously, he has never been seen since that first meeting …

Meanwhile, faced with the challenge of Covid-19 performance restrictions, Tanino has created this groundbreaking 50-minute VR version of his play.

With audiences limited to 20 per screening in separate booths, each viewer wears a headset and headphones to immerse themselves in this personal drama experience. But unlike regular theatre audiences who are generally silent onlookers, in this up-close and personal performance each viewer is a usually not-so-quiet participant in the cozy restaurant’s curious story — as, for instance, the Dark Master might come right up to you and stare, or you see sizzling steak and ketchup-flavored pasta cooking right in front of your eyes.

Of course it’s a make-believe world achieved without big casts and sets that you’re seeing and hearing — though it’s easy to forget the “virtual” as you experience this “reality.” All it lacks really are smells … but they too will most likely be on the VR menu one day soon as well.