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Theater review: Christopher Chen’s Caught at LaMaMa E.T.C.

Theater review: Christopher Chen’s Caught at LaMaMa E.T.C.
Photograph: Carol Rosegg

 

 

 

You don't get a program when you walk into the Play Company's latest production, Caught. That's your first clue. Nobody wants you to know who's playing what; nearly everything that's been assigned to an author, artist, curator or actor inside the theater has had its actual identity concealed. Even the fact that Christopher Chen wrote it and Lee Sunday Evans directed it—even the names of the actors—constitute spoilers. I've already blown some of the surprise for you, so if you're addicted to that sort of thing, stop reading and try to forget everything I've said so far.

But to discuss Caught, which is the goal and best outcome of Caught, means…discussing Caught. (The first rule of Theater Club is: You talk about theater.) In fact, once you unpack the Chinese-box dramaturgy, Chen's play turns out to have been a conversational prompt all along. One of the play's recurring motifs is instruction-based art, a postmodern performance form in which an artist issues a directive for an artwork rather than physically manifesting it. It would be wrong to say Caught's one of these, since the physical production (typically for the Play Company) is beautifully realized. Yet there's a quality of disappearance built into the play, a slipperiness at its fundamental points, which means we're left on our own when the piece finishes. There's no “character” lingering on in our memories, and no “plot” that still has us breathless. There's a set of questions instead. And if the play works, you ask them yourself.

To theatergoers, the questions will be familiar. Chen was inspired by (and makes  reference to) the 2012 Mike Daisey/This American Life scandal, when theatrical embellishments in a Daisey monologue turned problematic when he retold them on a podcast. The kerfuffle spurred a thousand useful conversations. Chen's four-fold nesting structure begins with a lecture by a Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), whose work we've seen displayed in the gallery space outside. The second “fold” is a dramatic scene with Lin, a New Yorker writer Joyce (Leslie Fray) and her editor (Murphy Guyer), in which the facts of the first scene start to fizz and fray. Arnulfo Maldonado's white-box set shifts again, and we're in the next layer of the onion, watching a talkback with conceptual artist Wang Min (Jennifer Lim), who in turn subverts the conversation to the point of nonsense. The final and centermost section is, unfortunately, a disappointment—a reduction of sorts—though it's finely acted by Lim and Changchien. I took it as an opportunity to enjoy Maldonado's set, Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes and Barbara Samuels's lights in yet another elegant configuration, and as a chance to get a headstart on thinking about the play.

The execution couldn't be better: Evans and her team clearly found the Inception-esque challenge of the text exciting. Performances are strong throughout, particularly in the escalating hysteria of the second scene, which moves from realism to literal melodrama (Jeremy S. Bloom did sound) with exquisite gradation. Where the piece can sometimes feel thin is in the text itself. Chen broaches ideas (cultural appropriation, the pretense of objectivity in journalism), but he's too quick; since each scene is barely 20 minutes long, it has only time to contribute to one really clever thought. Still, it turns out to be a useful thought. At each turn, the play and its form shows us how our reaction to a lie is more a matter of ego than truth. Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that Chen's work must be completed by one's own analysis. No one can think this through but me, I thought, preoccupied with myself to the end.

La MaMa E.T.C. (Off-Off Broadway). By Christopher Chen. Directed by Lee Sunday Evans. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

 

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