Broadway Features and Reviews
Berkeley Rep Premieres "Concerning Strange Devices"
By Linda Hodges, Broadway Magazine
"What we see what we think we see- is always up for grabs" says one of the characters in Naomi Lizuka's newly commissioned play, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West. And indeed, this thought-provoking, erotically charged drama asks us to puzzle over and contemplate the space between what we see and what we need and want to see in order for our lives to make sense.
Commissioned by the Berkeley Repertory Theater, "Strange Devices" captures the moment when Western photographers first found their way into the previously closed society of a 19th Century Japan already fading from view. The Meiji-era defined this transitional period. Feeding the insatiable western desire for glimpses into a perceived exotic, forbidden world, these hucksters with cameras created scenes where none existed, hawking pictures of kimono-garbed geishas and half-naked tattoo-laden men, passing off the photos as authentic still-lifes to a clamoring and curious continent on the other side of the world.
Lizuka begins by introducing us to straight-backed and corseted Isabel Hewlett (played disarmingly by Kate Eastwood Norris), an Englishwoman who breaks the fourth wall to tell us of just such a photograph found in her father's effects. Her voice trembling, and half on the edge of discovery, Isabel is clearly mesmerized and beguiled by the sight of the young and beautiful tattooed Japanese man before her eyes.
Now married, and accompanying her wealthy arms-dealing husband (Danny Wolohan) to Yokohama, she walks past the reality around her and finds her way to world-weary and irascible photographer Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie) who is photographing just such a man (Johnny Wu) in his studio. When Farsari takes her hand and places it on the tattooed man something shifts focus for Isobel. What she wants to see will be found within the confines of this studio – at least for now.
Her husband comes to the shop a few days later and requests that Farsari photograph his wife to provide her with a souvenir of her time in Japan. Days later Isobel comes to the shop, slips out of the confines of her corset and dons a colorful kimono for the photograph. But she's uneasy. "I look like a whale encased in silk," she frets to Farsari, who shakes his head at her awkwardness. Loosening her stays he turns her attention to stories of Japanese sailors who cover their arms with tattoos intended to scare off monsters of the deep should they be so unfortunate as to meet one face to face.
He tantalizes her with tales of secret lovers whose body art only forms a complete picture when they are pressed passionately as one. Isobel is lost in lustful thoughts and desires as foreign to her as Japan used to be. Bruce McKenzie brilliantly and skillfully teases out Farsari's just-below-the surface sexuality, tightening the tension with Isobel, and then slowly easing it out with the admission that he's more attracted to men. He will not be the one to affect her awakening.
Provocative mysteries, front-lit and casting shadows, define what we see in this creative world premiere wonderfully and ably guided by master director Les Waters. Scenic Designer Mimi Lien's set is an amazing work of art in monochrome black with shoji-like rice-paper-white panels that she uses to stunning effect. It is onto this black and white, shape-shifting set that Video and Projection Designer Leah Gelpe creatively focuses her vintage photographs and postcard perfect scenes.
Later she creates a modern day urban Tokyo hotel bar scene and uses television screen projections of Lim, Wu and McKenzie reflecting the techno-pop culture that the Japanese have so thoroughly infused with their own essence. Lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols creates stark shadow photographic negatives of the characters on the bold black walls, but then blinds the audience with a quick flash of a hundred bulbs (repeated several times throughout the play) that signal a scene change but left people stunned and blinking.
It is with one of these camera bulb flashes that we fast-forward to present-day Japan where jet-lagged art historian Dmitri Mendelssohn (also played by McKenzie) is seeking to buy rare vintage Meiji-era photographs from art dealer Hiro, played boldly and brashly by Johnny Wu. Dmitri employs the services of a translator named Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim) who is deceptively sweet, projecting a standard western stereotype of Japanese women – much like the photographs he craves. Big money is at stake for legitimate ephemera from a bygone era. But Dmitri is more interested in sex with Hiro and decides not to see, at least for the moment that he's being conned.
It is here that Iizuka crops her images in order to fine focus our attention on the optical illusions that puzzle and confound and that we ourselves create. Can we believe what we see? Or do we see what we want to believe? Are we interested in baring our souls or simply in baring our bodies? Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West most likely won't capture your heart but it will capture your attention. Intellectually thought-provoking, with inspired, sometimes humorous dialogue and always arresting imagery, it is an intensely interesting look backward and forward into what we think we see – which is always up for grabs.
Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West: Drama. Now through April 11
Berkeley Repertory's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley.
A commissioned work by Naomi Iizuka for the Berkeley Repertory Theater
Directed by Les Waters.
With Teresa Avia Lim, Bruce McKenzie, Kate Eastwood Norris,
Danny Wolohan and Johnny Wu.
95 minute running time with no intermission
Tickets - $16.50-$71
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