Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University. Directed by Evan Yionoulis
An interesting play by Naomi Jizuka about the fake and the real, that holds its audience well, is visually attractive and stylish, and adapts conventions of Kabuki theatre to good effect, but ends up being cynical and even nihilistic. Coming out of the theatre, I felt cheated, even though the enjoyment of the production was real while it lasted.
Darius Wheeler, a dealer in Oriental, mostly Japanese, paintings, prints, and other objets d’art, meets a woman who is a scholar of medieval Japanese culture and is intrigued by her — as we are: we first see this stunning black-haired Asian woman in a drop-dead black cocktail dress, which she fills out most advantageously. What draws them together (apart from sexual allure) is a “translation” by Wheeler’s talented assistant John Bell of an eleventh century Japanese “pillow book,” a supposed memoir by a well-educated courtesan. The translation has allegedly been made from photographs of the medieval original; but the truth is that the originals were manufactured by Claire, a talented painter, graphic artist, and restorer. John is caught in the middle of the scheme and has to lie his way out of it. Later, he manages to capitalize on his “translation” by publishing it as a work of fiction — which it has been from the start. The upshot of it all is that Wheeler, who has fallen in love with Setsuko, the knockout scholar, has brought the “original” for her, inevitably involving Setsuko in the fakery, at the cost of her reputation. She has to resign, and she turns angrily on Wheeler, breaking off with him.
Some nice, cynical ironies in all of this, and along the way some nice thematically oriented talk between the two lovers of what the difference is between the real and the fake. Setsuko, in a pregnant speech, describes her interest in the “space” that lies between words and the feelings, motives, and mental accessories that underlie them. Wheeler, for his part, is a kind of absolutist; for him “beautiful” means just that: beautiful. But in the developing subplot involving another woman, named Elizabeth Newman-Orr, who represents a wealthy Asian businessman and who wants to sell Wheeler a painting that turns out to be a remarkable twin to a painting he already owns and which seems to be fake — though he shamelessly leads Newman-Orr to believe that her painting is the fake one, we discover that Wheeler is as unscrupulous as he is absolutist. It is also the case that he has been done in by his own assistant. There are thematic wheels within wheels here, but by this time the audience is of two minds — whether to care for any of these characters or just to enjoy the intricacies of the action.
At last, the actors playing Wheeler and Setsuko step down to the edge of the proscenium arch — a beautifully rendered massive stained and polished thick wood frame, with equally massive metal plates holding it together at the top angles (or so it looks) — comment on Wheeler and Setsuko as if they were merely characters of their acquaintance, who broke up and went their separate ways. And so the play ends, leaving us in the lurch and harboring a sneaking suspicion that the play 36 Views itself is the most grandiose fake of all.
Is this what the author intended? Or does the text just get out of hand completely, epistem-ologically speaking? I’m not sure I care which. For all the cleanness of line exhibited by this play, and for all the pleasure I took in the costumes and transformations of costumes that occurred, there was a certain fragmentation in the quality of the production. From the start, one was not sure about a certain perceived distance one sensed between the actors and the characters they had been hired to inhabit. It seemed in fact calculated on the part of the actors, though not quite in a Brechtian way.
There is more to this. Wheeler got his start as a dealer by cheating a young woman out of some art she had inherited from her parents by telling her it was of little or no value, offering her a modest sum for it, then selling it by way of an auction for some millions of dollars. That young woman, it appears, turns out to be Claire, the artist who puts one over on Wheeler by way of John Bell’s complicitous “translation,” and so works out a nice revenge. But we end up not caring much about this either.
Was there some deep fault in the direction of the piece that resulted in what I, at least, felt as decided disaffection? Or was this an accurate mounting of a play that ultimately tells its audience to get lost? I may never be able to be sure about this — about whether the play itself, finally, is real or fake.
But maybe that is what the author truly intended: a radical kind of puzzlement altogether.