Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West": A 37th View?

This is a post in which I potentially shoot myself in the foot. So, if your name is Naomi Iizuka, and the year is 2014 or so, and you discovered my blog because I sent a grad-school application to the playwriting program at UCSD, which you lead, and you googled my name... I'd prefer it if you didn't read this!

Also, if you don't want to read spoilers for Iizuka's new play
Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, or her older play 36 Views, you might also want to look away.

The Variety and San Jose Mercury-News reviews of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, now in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, hinted at this, but I'm just going to come out and say it: it plays like a rehashed version of Naomi Iizuka's earlier hit, 36 Views.

It's not just that the plays explore similar themes: Japanese identity, exoticism, sexuality, authenticity versus artifice in art. It's that they use the same plot twist to illuminate these themes. 36 Views takes place among contemporary art collectors who discover a rare medieval Japanese pillow book (noblewoman's intimate diary) that turns out to be a modern forgery. Part of Concerning Strange Devices takes place in Meiji-era (late 1800s) Japan, but it also features a modern storyline set in the art world--about a man who buys forged Meiji-era photographs!

Not only that, the plays have a similar rhythm. Each of the 36 scenes of 36 Views ends with a sharp noise, made by the Japanese musical instrument that consists of two sticks being struck together. Each scene of Concerning Strange Devices ends with a blinding flash of light, like a camera flash, as all of the light bulbs onstage are illuminated for a split second. One is a sound cue and one is a light cue, but they both have the same effect, of ending each scene with a BANG!, an exclamation mark.

Now, I guess it's good that Iizuka has found her voice, her style, the themes that she most enjoys exploring. But anyone who has seen both 36 Views and Concerning Strange Devices must ask, where is the line between "exploring the same themes in multiple works" and "repeating oneself"?

After the show, I was discussing this with my theatergoing companion, who brought up Wendy Wasserstein as an example of a playwright who consistently explored the same themes, but did not "repeat herself" the way that Iizuka did here. All of Wasserstein's plays are set in the same milieu and explore the upper-middle-class female experience in the late 20th century; but each one of them looks at it from a slightly different angle and together they give a well-rounded perspective. It's a very cohesive body of work, but none of the plays are copies of one another. (Perhaps it also helps that Wasserstein's plays are less "plotty" than Iizuka's--so she couldn't reuse the same plot twists.) Whereas Strange Devices literally feels like a copy of 36 Views, because of the plot similarities. Very interesting in light of Iizuka's fascination with forgery and authenticity and all of that stuff!

Also, it's been 6 years since I saw 36 Views (at Portland Center Stage, in 2004) so my memory of it is hazy, but I recall it being a more engaging play than Strange Devices. Strange Devices features a lot of direct-address monologues in which Iizuka self-consciously outlines the themes that she is exploring and the messages that she wants to convey; I would have found the play much more interesting if more of it was achieved through active dialogue. After all, it's partly a mystery about two young con artists who outwit a guy by selling him forged photos--so shouldn't it be more exciting, less oblique and ruminative, than it is?

The Meiji-era plotline also suffers from monologue overload. At the end of the play, Iizuka's character Mrs. Hewlett informs the audience that she left her husband and went to live with a sexy tattooed Japanese rickshaw driver. But it bugs me that we just have to take this on faith: I mean, I'd find it much more interesting to see a scene of Mrs. Hewlett and the rickshaw driver negotiating their relationship (and all of the barriers of language and race and class that lie between them) than to hear her tell us "I shacked up with him and the sex was amazing." And if Iizuka wants to write a monologue-heavy play, why doesn't the rickshaw driver get a speech of his own? As it is, he doesn't have a word to say in the script; doesn't this further objectify and exoticize him, rather than giving him a voice?

It feels like after last year's In the Next Room, Berkeley Rep is making a specialty of plays about bustle-clad American women from the 1880s whose sexual frustration comes to a head when they are confronted with a new technology (vibrators, cameras). And, though both plays are presumably written with the best of intentions, they both feature racially problematic treatments of some of their nonwhite characters--the Japanese rickshaw driver in Iizuka's play and the black wet-nurse in Ruhl's.

Top photo: Bruce McKenzie and Teresa Avia Lim in the modern-day story. Bottom photo: Kate Eastwood Norris, Bruce McKenzie and Johnny Wu in the Meiji-era story. Both photos by Kevin Berne, Berkeley Rep.


Mead said...

Clever title for this post! And your opinions about the show, put it into perspective like this, are thoroughly reasoned -- but I disagree, all the same. The parallels between CSD and 36V are definitely there, but Naomi is interested in totally different things. Whereas 36V used the physical act of (mis)perception as a metaphor for human relationships, you could say CSD looks at this from the other end of the lens. Now a shift in who we fundamentally are leads to new ways of seeing; they're inextricable.

As such, I see CSD as a extension of Naomi's ongoing investigation of the human psyche and how the interplay of our minds and our senses quite literally creates the universe we all agree we see. That investigation didn't start with 36V, but that play, like this new one, certainly deepens the mystery, even as it clarifies its boundaries! A beautiful paradox.

Someday soon people will be writing dissertations about Naomi's body of work, it's that rich. Perhaps Ms. Bidilla will be the trailblazer, as usual??

Marissa said...

Hi Mead, Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. As I said, it's been a while since I thought about "36 Views," and would be curious to read it again, so that I could better understand the different ways that Iizuka plays with her themes/metaphors in the two different plays. I liked your point that "Strange Devices" is about how "a shift in who we fundamentally are leads to new ways of seeing": that's the reason that that play moves between two eras, while "36 Views" takes place only in the present day...

As you can see, I remembered enough of "36 Views" to get distracted by the way that certain elements of its plot and structure are repeated in "Concerning Strange Devices." But unlike you, I am not familiar enough with "36 Views" (or with the rest of Iizuka's work, or with the development process of "Strange Devices") to articulate the fundamental differences in the themes/messages of the two plays, the way that you do so ably in your comment. Perhaps Alexander Pope said it best: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." The fact that I had a LITTLE knowledge of Iizuka's work (instead of either no knowledge, or full knowledge) is what got me making these complaints!