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Theatre in Review: Caught (The Play Company/La MaMa)

Louis Ozawa Changchien. Photo: Carol Rosegg

This is one of the more confounding reviews I've ever had to write, because there's practically nothing I can tell you about the series of schemes, fakeouts, and reversals that is Christopher Chen's Caught: Really, the entire play is one giant spoiler alert. The one thing I can confidently say is that Chen is clearly a talent to watch.

It's typical of Caught's penchant for the unexpected that the play begins with an art installation. Before entering the theatre, we pass through Lin Bo: Jail Seeking Prisoners. Lin Bo, we are told, is "a Chinese conceptual artist most often associated with the so-called 'confrontation' movement." A flyer in the program adds, "In 2012, he was jailed in China for two years as a direct result of his art piece rally. In 2015, Lin Bo moved to New York, where he began a series of pieces that served as personal reactions to urban American Living." Jail Seeking Prisoners is a recreation of a jail cell, located in the artist's studio, in which anyone may volunteer to spend a night, as long as he or she follows stringent rules, one of which is agreeing to be streamed on video.

Once in the theatre, we are introduced to Lin Bo himself, who, in the course of a brief talk, makes several provocative points. Not least, he casts a cold eye on District 798 in Beijing, a kind of government-sponsored art colony where artists produce "subversive" works that stay comfortably within the constraints of government policy -- for example, turning out satirical works about the late Mao Zedong, which are acceptable largely because he has been discredited by the current regime. "Already there are plans for a Las Vegas makeover, with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics," he announces.

He also offers a gripping account of how his plan to create an "imaginary" protest honoring the victims of Tiananmen Square -- posting a logo, date, and time for the rally, but without other key information, such as the location -- went viral, leading to his arrest. The details of his incarceration and interrogation are particularly grisly, from the diet of cabbage soup to the infestations of bugs and brutal interrogations. Clearly, we are in the presence of a true hero; his work is provocative, and he has survived all that an authoritarian state can throw at him. The room is thick with edification.

Next, however, we see Lin Bo -- who mentioned in passing that he was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker -- arriving at the offices of that magazine, where he is greeted by Joyce, who wrote about him, and Bob, her editor. At first, the conversation is genial, with Lin Bo happily discussing his forthcoming memoir from Simon & Schuster. Then Joyce says, ever so slyly, that she'd like to check a few details with Lin Bo. As the questioning becomes more intensive, the penny drops -- an authority on Chinese prisons from Stamford has raised red flags about many details of Lin Bo's story: Now about that diet of cabbage soup....

And we're off. As the interrogation becomes both more hysterical and more farcical, we start to realize that the game is afoot. Everything that follows in Caught is guaranteed to make us less and less certain about what we're seeing onstage. Characters unmask themselves only to be revealed wearing other masks underneath. Each scene is a kind of gloss on its predecessor, with actors coming forward to comment on the underpinnings of what we have just seen. Early on, Lin Bo notes that, thanks to the New Yorker piece, "I have almost felt I am this symbol of all Chinese suffering." Joyce and Bob turn on him, losing interest in his story and focusing entirely on protecting their suddenly endangered careers. And then there's Wang Min, an artist who shows up to note that Lin Bo's problem with The New Yorker is part of an American tradition that includes the discrediting of the memoirist James Frey, taken down so memorably by Oprah Winfrey, and Mike Daisey, caught embellishing his piece The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs with melodramatic details about the workers at Foxconn, the factory where Apple products are made. (Daisey was exposed by PBS reporter Ira Glass.) As Wang Min mordantly notes, Americans seem to love these exercises in authorial bear-baiting for the distraction they provide; for example, in the argument about Daisey's credibility, the issue of workers' conditions at Foxconn was all-too-easily forgotten.

There's more, but each time we think we're getting close to the truth about Lin Bo and that installation, it slips away, like quicksilver to the touch. Chen, who as a playwright is the smoothest of con artists, has neatly constructed a series of scenes that fit into each other like Chinese boxes, if I can use that term without being accused of cultural insensitivity. As Caught makes clear, it's very easy to make an "objective" statement without being aware of its hidden assumptions about cultural superiority, racism, and sexual identity, to name but a few. Time and again, we are forced to reconsider Lin Bo's situation, the provenance of Jail Seeking Prisoners, and just about everything else that unfolds in the course of the play's brief running time. Even the play's final lines, which seem to explain everything, can't really be trusted.

In any case, the director, Lee Sunday Evans, stages this flimflammery with the surest of hands, aided by a cast -- most of them appearing in more than one role -- who are skilled at playing straight even in preposterous circumstances. Louis Ozawa Changchien is especially good as an actor who suddenly discovers that he may know nothing at all about the artist who was his lover for five years. Leslie Fray, a new face with a naturally witty manner, is especially amusing as Joyce, who unravels spectacularly at the thought of losing her perch at the summit of the publishing world. As Wang Min, Jennifer Lim enters and casually dismantles any notion of objective truth, leaving her onstage interlocutor reeling at the depth of her skepticism. Murphy Guyer earns some solid laughs as Bob, who sees himself as a victim of untrustworthy writers and political correctness.

The rest of the production -- scenery by Arnulfo Maldonado, costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee, lighting by Barbara Samuels, and sound and music by Jeremy S. Bloom -- are carefully calculated to support the play's sneaky ways. Altogether, Caught is a funny, stimulating evening that urges us all to think twice before spouting the received ideas that make us feel comfortable with ourselves. As I said, Christopher Chen is a real find; that is -- a chilling thought occurs -- if there really is a Christopher Chen, not a construct invented by another playwright to play a prank on us all. I mean....how can one be sure? -- David Barbour

(30 August 2016)

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