Constellation Theatre Company 36 ViewsBy Bob Ashby • Oct 31st, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Constellation Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Source Theatre, Washington DC
Through November 24th
2:15 with intermission
$35-$45/$15 Student (Plus Fees)
Reviewed October 27th, 2013
Tales of desire, seduction, and deception, in a world of refined sensuality and remorseless ambiguity. Constellation Theatre Company tells the tales, and sumptuously creates that world, in an emotionally and visually stunning production of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views. The title, a reference to Japanese artist Hokusai’s famous series of prints showing perspectives of Mount Fuji, hints at both the beauty and mystery of objects and the people who perceive them, which Iizuka explores in the play’s 36 scenes.
Reviews of some past productions of the play have criticized the writing of its characters, arguing that they are more schematic presentations of the playwright’s ideas than fully fleshed-out people. Not so with these actors. As Darius Wheeler, dealer in Asian antiquities, Jim Jorgensen is all charm, intelligence, and guile, as he seeks profit from pieces of art that he also deeply admires. He desires young academic Setsuko Hearn (whose last name evokes Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century journalist whose most famous writings were of Japan, and who assimilated into Japanese society as much as it is ever possible for a foreigner to do). Wheeler’s desire is erotic; it is also akin to his desire for Asian art objects, simultaneously to partake in their beauty and to possess them. Hearn (Sue Jin Song), notwithstanding her first name, is not Japanese: she is a Chinese orphan adopted and raised in Fairfield, Iowa, by an American couple, her adoptive mother being Japanese-American. Like her 19th century namesake, Hearn’s affiliation with Japan is acquired, in her case by becoming an expert in 11th century writings by Japanese women. Her sharp intellect and skepticism about life and people are as palpable as her excitement about and passion for command of her subject, which is her deepest desire.
John Bell (Ashley Ivey), a highly educated, insecure, underpaid assistant to Wheeler, has written, mostly as a lark, a manuscript in the style of an 11th century Japanese “pillow book,” a collection of the musings, experiences, personal revelations and poetry of a woman of that era. The next seduction — playing to Bell’s unexpressed but strong desire for recognition and to put one over on his boss, who undervalues him — is by Claire Tsong (Tuyet Thi Pham), a restorer under contract to Wheeler. Hearing that Bell improvised a preposterous tale of the nonexistent underlying document’s provenance that Wheeler fully believed — Bell’s monologue in which he spins the tale is the funniest moment in the show — she persuades Bell to go all in on a scheme to concoct a forged, artificially aged, “original” of the piece, which they can then sell to Wheeler for a tidy sum. Ivey and Pham effectively portray Bell’s nervousness and guilt and Tsong’s delight in manipulation, respectively.
It is a commonplace that reporters attempt to seduce sources. So it is between freelance journalist Elizabeth Newman-Orr (Megan Dominy) and Wheeler. In her desire for a breakthrough story, Newman-Orr tries to induce Wheeler, whose desire for making a financial killing is known to exceed any ethical scruples, to participate in an illegal scheme to import a valuable Asian painting. As played by Dominy, Newman-Orr makes no pretense of sincerity; she presents herself to Wheeler as a kind of artistic femme fatale. The final character of the play, Owen Mathiassen (David Paglin) — Hearn’s avuncular mentor — scarcely needs seducing, so open is his desire to cap his academic career with a major find. Proclaiming his good judgment of people and art, it is easy for Mathiassen to overlook obvious red flags.
The play contains extensive discussion of what is real, what is fake, what is or isn’t authentic, how and whether one can tell the difference, and what it all matters or doesn’t. In her numerous interviews about the play, Iizuka proclaims authenticity as the key theme of 36 Views. (As the script points out, Hokusai ultimately produced 46 prints of Fuji, so even the name commonly given to the series is misleading.) It isn’t just a matter of determining whether a particular work was actually created by its purported author, as distinct from a copy or deliberate forgery, which remains a subject of lively discussion and debate in the art world. It’s that, as Little Buttercup says in a very different kind of show, “things are seldom what they seem.” In human relationships as well as in art, determining what is real, and what real means, is inevitably a very uncertain, perilous business, and improvised responses to events and unexpected turns abound. Is Wheeler, well-known for sharp practice in the art business and for embellishing stories of his past, truthful in expressing his feelings for Hearn? Is Newman-Orr hunter, prey, or both? Iizuka fortunately attempts no pat answers.
A word about eroticism in the play. None of the characters is simply out for sex. Often, they seek estheticized contact with the beauty of another. There is a list of beautiful things spoken, with variations, by different characters during the play: “The curve of a lover’s neck, delicate, white. The touch of a lover’s finger tips. The weight of a lover’s hair, the scent: clove and sandalwood. The rustle of silk undone. Warm breath against one’s skin.” Other times, erotic desire is fused with a desire for success or revenge, as in the connection between two of the other characters. Like everything in the play, desire is never only one simple thing.
Constellation’s physical production of 36 Views is drop-dead gorgeous, featuring ever-changing, lushly colorful, projections of Hokusai and other Japanese art on sliding shoji screens. The Japanese-style house/gallery in which Wheeler lives is here in America, a reproduction (authentic?) of his idea of an Asian space. Scenic/lighting designer A. J. Guban and projections designer Aaron Fisher create not just a visual but also an emotional environment, even varying the color of a projection in one instance to illustrate a point Wheeler is making about the difference between a genuine and fake Hokusai print. (Wheeler is given to authoritative proclamations about whether a work is “real” or “fake,” but then sometimes he lies. How reliable is the testimony of experts, when they sometimes seek to deceive and other times, like Hearn and Mathiassen, almost willingly allow themselves to be deceived?)
Palmer Hefferan’s sound design is based on Japanese instruments — wood blocks, bamboo flutes, and the like — as called for in Iizuka’s stage directions. Kendra Rai’s costumes are as varied as the characters: cool, urban affluence for Wheeler; contemporary Asian-influenced, chic for Hearn; rumpled academic for Mathiassen, etc. The most spectacular costume effect, also mentioned in the stage directions, is near the opening of the show, when a woman in a traditional kimono removes one layer of her garment after another, ultimately revealing Hearn in a modern dress. A better metaphor for the layering of meanings and that characterize the entire play is hard to imagine.
So subtle, intricate, and well designed and performed are every detail and nuance of 36 Views that this is one of those rare productions that would reward more than a single viewing. Fascinating, from start to finish. Really.
Photos by Stan Barouh
- Darius Wheeler: Jim Jorgensen
- Setsuko Hearn: Sue Jin Song
- John Bell: Ashley Ivey
- Claire Tsong: Tuyet Thi Pham
- Elizabeth Newman-Orr: Megan Dominy
- Owen Matthiassen: David S. Paglin
- Director: Allison Arkell Stockman
- Assistant Director: Rob Mueller
- Scenic/Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban
- Costume Designer: Kendra Rai
- Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan
- Projections Designer: Aaron Fisher
- Production/Stage Manager: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich
- Properties Designer: Kasey Hendricks
- Fight Choreographer: Tuyet Thi Pham
- Technical Director: Jason Krznarich
- Carpenters: Amanda Demczuk, Jeff Wendell
- Charge Artist: Marisa (Za) Jones
- Installation Carpenters: Chris Banks, Jim Batchelder, Ashley Chen, Steve Custer,
- Cody Deyarmin, Robert Garner, Brad Irish, Nate Kurtz, Betsy Muller
- Production Assistant: Adam W. Johnson
- Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Soriano
- Master Electrician: Alex Keen
- Assistant Lighting Designer: Paul Callahan
- Electricians: Aja Anderson, James Brown, Amanda Demczuk, Andrew Derbyshire,
- Peter Goldschmidt, Sarah Mackowski, Aaron Pollon, Kelsey Swanson
- Sound & Projection Board Operator: Maddie Gaw
- Assistant Costume Designer: Courtney Wood
- Draper: Bill Nelson
- Audience Services Manager: Lindsey Ruehl
- House Managers: Erin Gifford, Ginny Page
Disclaimer: Constellation Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9861.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.