Nothing is as it seems in Christopher Chen's Caught, now receiving its New York City debut with The Play Company. This boundary-pushing show begins with a walk through an art gallery in the basement of La MaMa. The walls display overlapping printouts of a short-term rental property listing: It's a jail cell (rent: $1). Inhabitants must be present from 9am-12pm, during which time they are not allowed to read, sleep, use electronics, or do yoga. It's a sly way to highlight prison conditions and really, what better way to introduce a globe-trotting socially conscious New York audience to the subject than with an ironic AirBNB-themed art installation? But that's not what this play is really about.
Chen was inspired by the scandal surrounding Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about the inhumane labor practices in a Chinese plant that manufactures Apple products. Daisey was widely condemned when, following an adaptation for This American Life, portions of the theatrical monologue were revealed to be fabricated for dramatic effect. In essence, a story about the exploitation of Chinese laborers turned into one about the dishonestly of an American theater artist. "We're relieved in a way, to not have to worry about the workers' conditions in China," Chen recently told The New York Times. Which begs the question, is America's obsession with honesty a cherished virtue or a giant blind spot that refocuses our attention on process and away from a larger truth?
We take our seats in the theater once we finish viewing the gallery. That is when we are introduced to Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien), who allegedly created this piece in response to the time he spent in prison. "We shared the cell with roaches, and other large bugs I could not name," he tells us in a serious (yet uncommonly poised) tone. A later scene features an editor (Murphy Guyer) and writer (Leslie Fray) for The New Yorker passive-aggressively (and then just aggressively) poking holes in his story, eventually accusing him of making the whole thing up. Fray plays this scene in soap-operatic fashion, to hilarious effect: "I just don't think you know how hard it is to toil at the bottom of the journalism food chain," the American writer tearfully says to the alleged Chinese political prisoner who ruined her career with a phony scoop.
In reality, the installation we see at the top of the show is by Miao Jiaxin…at least I think so. Caught is filled with so many unreliable narrators and shifting stories, it is hard to know what is what. Chen's camera keeps pulling back to reveal a new frame: The actors step out of the scene and introduce themselves as actors, which then becomes the new play. The feeling is akin to waking up from a dream, only to find oneself in another dream.
Yet thanks to committed performances from the cast, we keep re-suspending our disbelief. A talkback scene between artist Wang Min (Jennifer Lim) and Leslie Fray (the actual Leslie Fray playing a character with her exact same name) has the feeling of an Oscar Wilde dialogue about art, like The Decay of Lying: It's an excuse to put big ideas onstage with only the frailest skeleton of plot. Playing the Vivian to Fray's Cyril, Lim is aggravatingly abstruse (and therefore, highly believable). She deflects all of Fray's questions by rejecting the premise as an "American, Fox News" way of thinking, as if her feeble western brain is incapable of processing the divine complexities of the mysterious East. "I feel like you're trying to lose me on purpose," exclaims an increasingly frustrated Fray.
Even if you get lost along the way, Evans' sure-footed production will keep you from drowning in confusion. Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes give us a clear sense of character (Lin's hideous brown suit with the shirt buttoned to the neck, no tie, is a particularly nice touch). Arnulfo Maldonado's funhouse of a set seems perpetually able to unfold into some new, unexpected scene.
With all of his theatrical trickery and witty non-commitment, it is hard to discern if and when Chen is ever sincere (much like Wilde); but he's an artist, not a politician, so does he really need to tell us what he honestly believes? We are in a theater, after all, a place entirely devoted to the practice of people pretending to be other people.
Sincere or not, Chen gleefully pokes fun at the myriad fallacies that presently reign over American art and media: the sanctity of identity, the disdain for "appropriation," and the belief that journalists can and should report a perfectly objective truth. Watching this play often feels like sinking into hermeneutical quicksand, but in a world that seems poised to recraft its governing assumptions, this may be a sensation we will have to get used to.
- Jennifer Lim
- Louis Ozawa Changchien
- Christopher Chen
- The Play Company
- Lee Sunday Evans
- Murphy Guyer
- Arnulfo Maldonado
- Leslie Fray
- Junghyun Georgia Lee
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