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LETTERS TO EDITOR
On the surface 36 Views is a mystery about an art forgery but the issues spouted by that forgery are relevant to life generally as well as other forms of endeavor (the recent plagiarism scandal involving historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and the "creative" accounting at Enron come to mind). The forgery is unpremeditated, beginning when John (Ebon Moss- Bachrach), Darius's multi-lingual assistant, invents his own version of the contents of a worthless artifact, thereby giving it the provenance of a genuine Japanese pillow book attributable to the ancient Heian era. John's make-belief, a comic gem, has repercussions that ripple through this specialized segment of the art world represented by Darius, John and the play's four other characters:
36 Views derives its title as well as its staging ideas from a famous series of wood-block prints called "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji." The script is full of suggestions for physical details which clearly served as guidelines for the vision of director Mark Wing-Davey and his superb design team. The result: A play that comes at you from all directions, with its words inextricably linked to the production's stunning visual and sound elements. These include sliding shoji screens that are as translucent as the various layers of meaning are initially obscure; floating art objects; overhead projections that subtly illustrate the shifting perspectives and tie the 36 scenes to the 36 squares of the chesslike Japanese game of Go. The relationship between living with modern and ancient traditions is illustrated by the gorgeous Asian garments frequently worn by Liana Pai's character and shed to reveal the modern American garb of her very proper American academic character.
Admittedly the play's being such a feast for the eyes at times seems to compensate for the fact that the characters, for all the layers peeled away from their surface appearances, have an aura of being artificial, more additional props than real people. Fortunately Mr. Wing-Davey has also assembled a cast of actors capable of wringing every ounce of nuance from the parts which all except Stephen Lang and Richard Clarke have previously played at the co-sponsoring Berkeley Rep Theatre.
Lang's gravel-voiced Darius is all predatory hunter, yet with a credibly sensitive side to his macho personality. Liana Pai and Elaine Tse render memorable portraits of the two women whose multicultural backgrounds add yet another angle to Ms. Lizuka's hard-edged play. Pai's Setsuko Hearn is cool and reserved but with a mile-wide streak of passion that comes to the fore when Darius brings her the pillow book that will change her career and their relationship.
Tse's Claire is the character with the most baggage to unpack in order for us to see the ardent artist beneath the aggressive, angry provocoteur who masterminds John's fabrication into a headline making grand scheme. She posits some of the play's more intriguing questions, as when she aims a spray paint can at an antique screen she's just restored and asks John whether she would be destroying it or really restoring it and further challenging him with "What if I happened to make it a better painting? Or better yet, what if you couldn't tell the difference?" In one unforgettable East-meets-West scene, Claire is a spike-haired twenty-first century samurai warrior bursting into an animated dance to the accompaniment of punk rock music.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach is just right as the brilliant nerd caught up in a situation he never intended and never would have dared to take further without Claire. Also delightfully out of his depth in all this intrigue is Richard Clarke as the endearing art department head Owen Matthiassen who finds himself faced with unexpected glory, quickly followed by unwanted notoriety.
Having seen Rebecca Wisocky in several Off-Broadway productions and also as a dancer at Jacob's Pillow (Sueno, The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant and The 7 Deadly Sins), I've come to expect unusual and always good work from her. Her portrayal of Elizabeth Newman-Orr, the chamelon with a twist of nastiness, more than meets this expectation. She's on stage less than the other actors, but when she's there you sit up and take notice.
So what does the mix of ideas and illusions that make up 36 Views leave you with? A sense of appreciation for spare but beautiful stagecraft, a striking final image of 36 paintings shifting into alignment to form a larger picture echoing the lady of the scroll overarching Darius's gallery -- and a lot more questions than answers about East Asian culture, perceived and real authenticity, truth and deceptions.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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