Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review of Strange Devices


The world we live in is a complicated place. Sometimes when we look back we can see how certain paths have led us to where we stand now. It’s like being part of a puzzle without realizing it, until you look back. That’s the way I’m thinking about Naomi Iizuka’s new play, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, directed by Les Waters at Berkeley Rep running from now until April 11th. It’s a beautiful, strange but evocative non-narrative play that deals with emotional relationships, photography, tattoos and reality. The reality angle is especially interesting in this day and age of PhotoShop where we can make anything look like it was just snapped.

There are two threads through which the play is woven, one which starts in 1860s Yokohama, Japan, the first port to open to the west. A Victorian lady stumbles into an American photographer’s studio while he’s taking photographs of a young man covered in tattoos and not much else. The other thread involves modern day Tokyo with an art history professor seeking some 19th century prints, who might or might not be a black mailer.

No more on the plot as I don’t want to spoil it for you if you have a chance to see it. Les Waters’ direction was very good as was the acting, which is especially hard to do when actors play multiple characters. The show featured Kate Eastwood Norris, Johnny Wu, Bruce McKenzie, Teresa Avia Lim and Danny Wolohan)

The set design by Mimi Lien was strikingly Asian in its simplicity and workability. I rather liked her use of a moving wall that looked like a large shoshi screen and the angles used for the short platforms. It was minimalistic and beautiful. Using several set pieces that rolled on and off made the transitions from 19th to 21st century readable from the audience.

The sound (Bray Poor) and videos (Leah Gelpe) were very effective and evocative. While the lighting (Alexander Nichols) was generally good over all, I can’t say I really liked the “flash” used to punctuate scenes instead of blackouts. Conceptually I get it, as a take on the old time photographer's flash pots, but it was so bright that I started to shield my eyes when a scene ended.
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