Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Upon entering the theater you encounter a well-mounted exhibit of paintings and collages by Lin Bo, a Chinese dissident artist who was imprisoned during the pro-democracy movement of 1989 that culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Lin Bo's crime was orchestrating a brilliant work of conceptual art, a "virtual protest." Now living in the United States, he has been the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker and has a book slated for publication that tells his story in full. In the exhibition you are greeted warmly by curator Susan Miller, and several well-schooled docents circulate to explain the finer points of each of Lin Bo's works, all of which are for sale.
Once the audience is fully assembled and seated, Susan Miller introduces the artist himself, Lin Bo. His talk does not refer as much to the works mounted behind him as to his personal saga: his view of art as a form of political discontent, the falseness of supposedly radical art in Beijing's 798 Art District, how he devised the virtual protest, and the harsh price he paid. During two years in Chinese Detention Center 7 he experienced repeated interrogations and physical abuse, egging him on to give up names of other dissidents, names he did not even have. He relates the miserable prison conditions, describing in lurid detail the food, the toilets, and other sources of misery. His presentation feels theatrical, a monologue rather than a gallery talk, as if his real goal is to whet our appetite for his soon to be released book.
The scene ends, another one arrives. Lin Bo meets with the budding journalist who scooped his story for The New Yorker and her editor, who exudes enough nervous energy to power a helicopter. How we know what is true and what difference the truth makes suddenly is called into question. Can truth be created? Another Chinese artist, Wang Min, is brought in, and she relates what we have seen to the controversy around Mike Daisy, the documentarian who falsified his report on the conditions in which Apple iPhones are manufactured in China, extending responsibility to Ira Glass, host of the National Public Radio show "This American Life" for airing Daisy's story.
Now the questions really fly: Whose work have we been looking at? What is the real message behind it? Is cultural appropriation of the arts ever acceptable? For that matter, is it ever avoidable? The play becomes an initial scene placed within a box, placed within another box, and finally into a larger box that calls into question the reality of the artists' experiences that triggered their work. If art is based on experiences that are themselves falsehood, how true are the artists' visions?
I am purposely not trying to be very clear in describing the play, as much of the point and the pleasure of Caught is in not knowing what comes next, believing that we are being given a window into something we can believeeven if it is fiction, something to believe within the context of the dramatist's constructionand then, finding that our view is an illusion, that the actual truth lies beyondif it exists at all.
You do not need to be knowledgeable about contemporary art, publishing, or the recent history of Chinese dissident movements to follow the narrative of Caught. What we know doesn't really make a difference, Chen seems to be telling us, because at any moment it may turn out to be untrue. Chen's dialogue is well crafted. He captures the lofty speech exchanged between intellectuals arguing their positions with increasingly esoteric metaphors, to a point that nears insanity, the language meant to provide clarifying insight turned into an act of aggression. Later, when Chen has the two artists, Lin Bo and Wang Min, converse as peers in an "off duty" moment, their language becomes a needling probe as they discover truths about themselves by pushing the other to let down their guard. At the end of Chen's grand and intricate construction, the notion of truth feels elusive and slippery, a harsh message, perhaps, for those who want their facts delivered in black and white.
Director Rick Shiomi keeps the audience well on our collective toes, presenting each scene as if it were an oceanic wave emerging afar, rising above us, cresting and breaking, dissolving as the next wave takes its place. Experiencing Caught is then something like theatrical body surfing, best to ride the waves and avoid being knocked down, and to be unconcerned about where the wave takes us. When the play ends, it is as if we need to respond quickly, before yet another wave surprises us from the wings, knocking us over once again.
The cast are all up to the challenge, with Brian Kim as Lin Bo appropriately over-rehearsed in his account of life as a Chinese political prisoner, and Katie Bradley as Wang Min hilariously making her arguments increasingly complex until all meaning is lost as she pursues the purity of her construct. Shana Eisenberg is splendid as the overly excited hostess, the curator Susan Miller, who ever so slowly abandons her decorum trying to keep apace with Wang Min's rant. Erika Kuhn as Joyce, the ambitious journalist, and Edwin Strout as Bob, the bombastic editor, make a finely matched pair, a good cop/bad cop team who back Lin Bo into a corner.
Mina Kinukawa created the spare, sophisticated gallery setting for Caught, the second of her set designs I have seen in as many evenings of theater, after Small Mouth Sounds at the Jungle, with the same clean elegance gracing both productions. Khamphian Vang's costume designs perfectly suit each character, with the gallery opening attire work by both the artist Wang Min and the curator Susan Miller conveying the air of artsy-casual, though expensive, fashion typically seen at such events. Sound designer Quinci Bachman bridges the scenes with music that serves as a prelude to what lies ahead.
Caught is an intriguing and stimulating show, using a variety of presentation styles to throw us off the scent of the hunt for truth it challenges us to undertake. In a time when public discourse has a lot to say about verifiable truth versus "alternative facts," Christopher Chen's play might be as subversive as the dissident artist Lin Bo and cultural mischief-maker Wang Min.
Full Circle Theater's Caught, through June 2, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are $9.00. For information and tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit guthrietheater.org. For information on Full Circle Theater, visit www.fullcircletheatermn.org.
Writer: Christopher Chen; Director: Rick Shiomi; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Quinci Bachman; Stage Manager: Sarah Perron; Dramaturg and Assistant Director: Martha Johnson; Chinese Language and Culture Consultant: Rose Wan-Mui Chu; Art Exhibit Consultant: Nanette Hanks; Technical Director: Alex Olson.
Cast: Katie Bradley (Wang Min, May 17 - June 26), Elizabeth Cates (art gallery docent May 17 - June 26), Shana Eisenberg (Susan Miller), Kathryn Fumie (Wang Min, May 29 - June 2), Brian Kim (Ling Bo), Erika Kuhn (Joyce), Marcos Lopez (art gallery docent), Wendy Matsutani (art gallery docent, May 29 - June 2), Nathan R. Stenberg (art gallery docent), Edwin Strout (Bob).