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Alvin Eng on Crafting Portraiture in Drama

The playwright tells us about the inspiration for his Portrait Plays, and why he wanted to bring Three Trees to Pan Asian Rep. logo

Alvin Eng
© Sunny Wong
Imagine you are in Paris in 1956. The city is in a state of unrest after World War II; France is at war with Algeria, and the art world is at a crossroads between the old and new. Playwright Alvin Eng has brought this world to life with his exploration of 20th century artists Alberto Giacometti and his muse Isaku Yanaihara in his play Three Trees, the first of the Portrait Plays, directed by Obie Award winner Ernest Abuba, now running through April 14 at the West End Theatre at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, presented by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

Among the artists and philosophers drawn to Paris are Alberto Giacometti and his muse, the existentialist Isaku Yanaihara. Their personal relationship is explored, largely in Giacometti's studio, creating a discussion of the meaning of art, creation, and truth.

TheaterMania spoke to the playwright about the relationship between artist and model, Paris as an inspiration, and the reinventing of Pan Asian Rep.

Do you call your play historical fiction? Or is it more of a docudrama?

I call it historical drama, [but] it's a little bit of both. It's based on the relationship between Giacometti and Isaku Yanaihara.

Three Trees is a part of a series you call Portrait Plays. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is?

Portrait Plays are historical dramas about artists. In the narrative medium, we're creating portraiture, whether through music, media, or prose. Giacometti had a history of wearing out his models, physically and psychologically. Yanaihara was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne; he translated The Stranger into Japanese. Alberto Giacometti created many portraits of Isaku Yanaihara, but…in the studio, [he] couldn't capture him, which led to an obsession, flying from Tokyo to Paris. On the higher level, obsession is how they know love.

Why did you want to bring it to Pan Asian Rep?

I've known them for so long. I greatly admire them. They are pioneers. Ernest [Abuba, the director], I'd worked with him before on The Last Emperor of Flushing and he had a great feel for this play. I showed them the play and only one of the four characters is Asian, and they said they loved it. I really didn't think they would do it. I liked the idea of expanding Asian American theater's boundaries.

What was your goal with this piece? What do you want the audience to take from it?

This relationship is a metaphor for a new world code after the war.I used this to show how the cultural world was changing around them. What I love about [having a] 21st century audience [is that] you can never replace the synergy of what happens between two people in a room. I wanted to explore the power of art and theater. I think, now more than ever, it's a great reminder.

What was it about Paris that inspired you?

Paris was a place where all these artists came to find their true artistic pull. These portrait plays represent a whole new chapter. This did not happen in New York. Going there and researching the whole artistic history, I was fascinated with portraiture.

Paris is just like New York [in that] hardly anybody here is from New York. [People feel] the pull of New York. I grew up in Queens, and, in some ways, we felt just as far away.

Do you hope that people will come to the theater with prior knowledge of these artists?

As a playwright, you always hope you can speak to both audiences. People [who] know everything will come away with insights, or people [who] don't will have just as an enriching journey. I like to think that, either way, it will be a deeply enriching evening.

What's next for you?

I'm working on the three Portrait Plays. 33 1/3 Cornelia Street is about painter Alice Neel and Joe Gould. It is having a production in Baltimore during the run of the Three Trees, at the Comparative Drama Conference. The third play is The Imperial Image, looking how portraiture is perceived. It explores portraits from the era of Marie Antoinette to the White House press staff.

For more information about the history of the play, specifically the real relationship of Alberto Giacometti and Isaku Yanaihara, the Asian/Asian American Research Institute at CUNY has provided video of the March 15 discussion between Alvin Eng and art historian Laurie Wilson.

Pan Asian Rep's production of Alvin Eng's Three Trees at the West End Theatre began previews on March 23, with an opening on March 28, running through April 14.

For more information and tickets to Three Trees, click here.