Review of "Gear" an immersive, non-verbal theatre show in Kyoto

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on Feb 26 2014.

Art Complex 1928, a contemporary performing-arts venue in central Kyoto, used to be a regional office of the Mainichi Shimbun national newspaper. Its 1920s  Art Deco-inspired architecture — including a star-shaped balcony and windows by Goichi Takeda — has even been officially designated a Tangible Cultural Property.

But for some time now, the main hall there has been home to “Gear,” a decidedly intangible sort of high-tech, non-verbal, immersive theater show whose run ends on March 30.

Front view of Art Complex 1928 in Kyoto.

Directed by On Kyakuyou, “Gear” is the story of four humanoid robots stuck on the assembly line of an abandoned toy factory in a desolate, automated future.

One of the factory’s former products, an anime-inspired character known as “Doll,” falls to the factory floor clad in a frilly white dress. Her intrusion jolts the robots out of their inertia and they start exploring the environment as autonomous beings.

Then, for reasons elusive, we see that a single touch from Doll is enough to unlock a unique ability within each robot — and one by one they wow the audience with their talents. From mime to break dance and magic to juggling, they take turns performing dazzling vignettes — until a power cut shuts them down and leaves Doll to experience solitude for the first time.

When the power comes back on, the factory starts to disintegrate. A large industrial fan whirs into action, creating a storm of paper, sound and light that immerses the audience’s senses in the final stage of the factory’s life.

Despite this, the storyline of “Gear” is somewhat simplistic, at times even veering toward the Disneyesque, and the characters are largely two-dimensional and fall back on cliched gestures and gags to gloss over the absence of speech. Then, when they begin to discover their “humanlike” qualities, there is little space to establish dramatic depth.

Consequently — on this down side — there’s a nagging sense that, in targeting a mainstream audience, the production has unduly shied away from exploring the potentially exciting interface between historical space, skilled performers and technical excellence.

On the up side, however, what “Gear” lacks in narrative intricacy, it makes up for in technical detail and the actors’ physical prowess. In fact the cast of 17 rotate for each performance, and on the night this writer attended, mime artist Keigo Tani, dancer Hide, magician Shogo Yamashita and juggler Ren brought their robot characters to life through precise choreography in which their machine-like movements, allied to their individual stage talents, ensured the audience’s attention was riveted to the stage.

Hide’s break dance turned the factory floor into a parkour environment, while Tani brought a sense of intimacy to the show through his fluid and mesmeric mime act. Yamashita, meanwhile, produced a faultless magic routine in the vein of David Blaine before Ren wrapped up the talent cycle with a whirling diablo-juggling show.

But let’s not forget Doll, acted with cute, loopy and lovable finesse by Yuka Hyodo, who turned in a really fun rendition of a teen-idol, anime character.

Her dress, too, doubled as a lighting space, making use of hidden, remote-controlled LED lights and customized laser lighting that brought out different emotional states in her character and also helped to heighten her sense of solitude in the show’s closing stages.

Takahiro Shibata’s impressive design was quite stunning in the way it drew on the hall’s arched-iron structure to transform the space into a factory full of cogs and levers reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic 1936 film, “Modern Times.”

In contrast, the production was lent a particularly powerful dimension through projection-mapping technology that allowed the crew to project light and video designs onto isolated parts of the Modernist factory to create the impression of a futuristic, automated world.

In “Gear,” though, projection-mapping animates the space and enables fast-paced scene changes, and is also used to turn audience members into mapping surfaces to conjure a remarkable holistic experience.

Aptly, too, the subtitle to “Gear” is “Complex Entertainment” — and while the production may have missed an opportunity to explore the complexity of dramaturgy in a mixed-media environment, it remains a fun-filled and visually compelling night out replete with technological feats that’s well worth a try — in both tangible and intangible ways.

Cover photo: The set for the the long-running production of “Gear” at Art Complex 1928 in Kyoto. | Copyright: Yoshikazu Inoue.

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