Review: An immersive theater piece that’ll have you ‘Caught’ up in ideas
You’ve read the New Yorker article. You’ve heard all of your artist friends talk about him. Now you can hear Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo speak at a downtown L.A. art gallery about the work that got him jailed back home.
What’s that? You haven’t heard of him? Well, you will.
Lin’s talk is the keynote of a wildly inventive art installation/theater piece known as “Caught,” which plunges attendees down a rabbit hole and flips them around several times. The whole affair leaves viewers with more questions than answers, which in this case is a good thing because the questions push us to think deeply about perception and truth.
Emerging San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen won an Obie Award this year for the piece’s off-Broadway presentation, and Louis Ozawa Changchien, a leading player in that production, performs here. The L.A. production, though, is more fully immersive in the hands of rising New York director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, known for constructing just this sort of all-enveloping experience.
Arriving on the second floor of a nondescript building in downtown L.A.’s Fashion District, attendees step into a crisply designed exhibition of boundary-blurring, perception-challenging works that provide context to Lin’s.
Once Lin is introduced, he proceeds to describe the fraught, post-Tiananmen atmosphere in China and the watchfulness that led to questioning and imprisonment when he disseminated a conceptual piece that was at once art and protest.
We want to applaud his need to make a statement and his ingeniousness in trying to sneak it past the government. But wait. Is he for real? He speaks in heavily accented, somewhat stilted English, yet his phrases seem too colorful, his references too Western. And he’s here to promote a book that seems designed to shoot to the top of bestseller lists.
Playwright Chen has said in interviews that one of his main inspirations was writer-performer Mike Daisey, whose “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” described troublesome working conditions at a Chinese company making Apple products. After the piece was discovered to be embellished, a national conversation ensued.
From Lin’s gallery talk, “Caught” proceeds in ever more surprising directions, each upending what preceded it.
Soon we are questioning our facile, Western assumptions about China. We might be wondering who has the right to tell a story if it’s not the storyteller’s own or if it’s outside his or her culture. We could pause to consider how we digest art — how what one person perceives in a painting or a play can be entirely different from what another sees. Some of us might get turned so upside-down that we begin to wonder whether we can truly know the inner workings of even those who are closest to us.
As frames of reality shift, so does the piece’s form. Is this visual art? Drama? Or something else entirely? Even the gallery space is not what it seems; it keeps opening into something new. Surprise turns to laughter, and reactions just keep morphing.
Iskandar, making his L.A. directing debut, has fun further warping expectations by taking abrupt turns into Douglas Sirk social melodrama or “Twilight Zone” disorientation.
Among the phrases that pop out: “The truth does not lie in the specific facts.” “America places a high premium on ‘truth.’ No persons of any other culture get more defensive when questioned over their ‘truth.’” “I have looked for truth but have only seen lies.”
The more you participate, the more you will get out of the experience. Look around. Ask questions. Keep revisiting the video slide show at the entrance; it has a tendency to change. Look closely at the promotional enlargement of Lin’s book cover. At the swanky reception afterward, look for something familiar flashing across the room’s video installation. Read the fortunes in the cookies.
The event’s multiplicity is due in part to the mash-up of its presenters: Firefly Theater & Films, VS. Theatre Company and the venue, Think Tank Gallery.
You might spot imperfections or quibble with the directions taken, but you’ll applaud the folks you’ve encountered — Changchien, Jackie Chung, Jessica Kaye and Steven Klein — as well as visual artists Mei Xian Qiu, Rafael Hayashi and Teddy Kelly; scenic designer Stephen Gifford; projection designer Jeffrey Teeter; and enough other contributors to fill a small city.
One thing that’s certain: You’ll leave with a better appreciation of life’s shifting perspectives, this Rubik’s Cube of reality.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Think Tank Gallery, 939 Maple Ave., second floor, downtown L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, ends Dec. 10
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes for the main event, but come early and stay longer
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