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The Illusion of Artistry

March 17, 2010

0910-sd-thumb-06.jpgEvery so often I go to the theatre and get tricked into thinking the play I'm seeing is good. Beautiful performances, slick staging and strong visual imagery can sometimes make me believe that a drama is really profound when it isn't. It's only after the fact -- sometimes several days or even weeks after the curtain has come down -- that I realize that I had been duped.

This happened last night during a performance of Naomi Iizuka's new play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West. But luckily I came to my senses about 30 minutes in when I realized, after a fit of yawning, that Iizuka's play, despite appearances, is not as interesting as it looks.

For a while I was caught up in the story about a Victorian era American couple's relationship with Japan, each other and the art of photography. Director Les Waters and the competent cast do such a magical job of giving the illusion of form to a formless drama -- whose incoherent themes veer between sexual tourism, the art of Japanese tattoo and the complex relationship between photography and memory -- that it's easy to feel momentarily engaged. But the incoherence soon set in and the 95 minute drama feels more like three hours.

Iizuka never makes us understand why this story needs to be set in Japan. I found myself caring very little about the characters and their trajectories. And the playwright hits us over the head with conclusions about her scantily-explored themes through a seemingly never-ending series of monologues at the end of the play.

The play is ultimately very much like its stylish lighting design -- which includes the intermittent flashing of a square of lightbulbs like a giant camera flash going off. We're momentarily blinded by these lights. But eyesight, at least as I'm concerned, is quickly restored.

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