Lying is fun. Catching liars -- that’s fun too. What’s not fun is being lied to. And getting caught in a lie, well, that can be an uncomfortable experience. The best thing about Christopher Chen’s Caught, currently running at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage in Berkeley, is that it's partially about lying. Chen's play is also about deceit and trickery. His handling of those themes can be entertaining, but they're never as compelling as the lying, and serve to undercut a great deal of the power of the play.
Chen starts with a slight shift in perspective. Instead of a play, what we’re seeing is a talk in an art gallery by a dissident Chinese artist, Lin Bo. We know the talk is as fake as any play we might see, including the one before us. Still, the conceit works. Lin’s gallery lecture has the feel of truth. The politically oppressed artist -- abused in his own country and celebrated in America -- has a long tradition, starting with the Soviet Union and now continuing with China; think of the West's embrace of Ai Weiwei.
Chen catches the way in which these presentations always slip back and forth between descriptions of torture -- “I was hit with a bamboo switch and sometimes an electrified club” -- and the subtle scolding of liberal audiences eager to embrace radical art and freedom: “Is this really provocative art? The answer…is no.” When Lin mentions a New Yorker profile of him and his upcoming memoir, it’s merely the cultural frosting on a very stale cake.
The ease of the set up allows Chen to subtly undermine what we’re hearing. Lin talks of another dissident artist,Yu Rong, whom the authorities might have confused Lin with, and asks, “Was Yu Rong the true target all along?” The answer, of course, if you’re listening carefully or enjoy bad puns on Asian names, is yes. You, the audience members, are the target. And as the target of Chen’s puzzle box of a play, you will often be wrong.
As the lecture ends, the entire stage erupts into a swanky office at the New Yorker (a stunning achievement by set designer Nina Ball) and a more traditional play appears to begin. Lin is meeting with the writer of the recent profile on him, Joyce Anderson, and her editor, Bob Levy -- they just have a few questions, some details about his story that they need to clear up to feel comfortable. You always know you’re in trouble when others need to be comfortable.
Director Susannah Martin, Ball, and noise architect Matt Stines create an admirable sense of distance from the action. Employing a hyper-realistic acting style, a glassed in set -- that echoes and distorts the actor’s voices -- they make us want to get closer to the action, to truly understand what’s going on.
If in the previous scene Lin is “caught” by a repressive Chinese government, here he is “caught” by the fact-checking department of the The New Yorker, and we feel his discomfort, maybe more so than his tales of being tortured. The first two-thirds of the scene is a tense culture clash between differing views of the truth. And those differences become even more unbearable given how polite everyone tries to remain. It’s a tea party with a nasty political, cultural, and racial undercurrent.
This is only the first of the many tricks in Chen’s Caught, and by far the most effective. It’s a battle over reality using competing models of theatrical realism. When the play hews to the realistic, no matter what the true story is, it’s an effective meditation on the difficulty of grasping the truth. But too often Chen veers into absurdity, both in terms of the logic of his plotting and as a theatrical style.
Take for example the long second and third scenes of the play. They both start in a promising manner, but then Chen takes the easy way out. So, a “fictional” post-show discussion with one of the actresses (Elissa Stebbins playing actress/curator Elissa Stebbins) and the supposed creator of the piece, Wang Min, a Chinese installation artist played by El Beh, is initially tense and funny. But Chen settles for cheap laughs. The scene, like the one before it, devolves into the absurd and plays like an overlong bit of sketch comedy.
The issue comes to a head when Wang claims that her piece was, "first inspired by incidents of scandal involving truth and lying in the United States." She is especially taken with Mike Daisey’s infamous 2010 solo show about labor conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It’s a fascinating reference and explains a great deal of what’s wrong with Chen’s play.
After excerpts of Daisey’s show aired on This American Life, a number of journalists familiar with China felt that there was something off about this supposedly true story. In a follow-up interview with host Ira Glass, Daisey admitted that he deliberately misled the NPR fact-checkers and had embellished key details. It’s painful and awful to listen to Daisey’s ludicrous explanations of his actions. What’s compelling, though, is how his story points to the mundane reality of truth and lies. That 15-minute interview will rattle your soul. Whereas the meta-theatrical musings of Caught never quite get to the heart of the matter.
For those of you who only trust your own experiences, you should go to Caught, listen to Daisey's retraction, and then tell me which you think is the more compelling piece of theater.
Shotgun Players' Caught runs through Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and then in rep to the end of the 2016-17 season. For tickets and information please click here.