by Hedy Weiss
'CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST'
When: Through April 14
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington
Info: (773) 281-8463, ext.6; www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Photography, eroticism, travel, exoticism, acting, forgery, tattoos and the elusive nature of all things. That (and a great deal more) is quite a lot to put inside the frame of a single 90-minute play.
But with an impressive sleight-of-hand-and-mind, artful minimalism and a visual beauty fully worthy of its many subjects, the contents of Naomi Iizuka's "Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West" somehow coalesce into an ever-shifting yet magically cohesive whole in TimeLine Theatre's newest production. And director Lisa Portes, working with five intriguingly shape-shifting actors and a gifted team of designers, taps into the play's uniquely edgy poetry -- a mix of East and West, handmade and high-tech, truthful and deeply deceptive -- that continually plays tricks on both Iizuka's characters and the audience.
It all begins in 1884, in Yokohama, Japan, where an American woman, Isabel Hewlett (the beautiful, wonderfully enigmatic Rebecca Spence), is traveling with her arms salesman husband, Edmund (Craig Spidle, ideal as "the ugly American"). Though on the surface, Isabel is a proper Victorian, she is far deeper and more curious than she appears, and certainly a cut above her boorish husband, who just happens to have already acquired a delicate Japanese mistress (the beguiling, impressively morphing Tiffany Villarin).
Isabel's intellectually and sexually-charged encounter with Adolfo Farsari (Michael McKeogh), a worldly, condescending studio photographer who lives in Japan, and sells iconic images of "old Japan" popular with tourists, reveals surprising things about both of them. And it sets the play's century-spanning plot in motion.
Flash forward to present-day Tokyo, where Dmitri Mendelssohn (McKeogh again), a smug young visiting American art history professor with a passion for photography and a hunger for sexual experimentation, has a drink at the hotel bar with his adorable Japanese translator (Villarin). Then flash foward again (and finally backward) as Dmitri gets caught up in the sale of fake 19th century "Meiji era" photographs in a scam run by a hip Japanese hustler, Hiro (Kroydell Galima, who also plays several very different roles expertly, and, like Villarin, confidently speaks bits of Japanese with confidence).
Along the way, nothing is quite what it seems to be, and Iizuka suggests (at moments with a bit too much dependence on coincidence) both the evolution of photography and the many roles this hybrid of art and technology can play in our psyches. She even speculates about what will follow today's surveillance techniques and pornographic web exposure.
Because this is an exquisitely constructed puzzle box of a play about seeing and image-making, memory and perception, its design is crucial. And from the moment you walk into the theater through a great cluster of white rice paper lanterns, and find a fragmented, mirror-like wall against which many images, real and electronic, emerge, its sophisticated design reflects its subject. Applause for Brian Sidney Bembridge (sets and lighting), Mike Tutaj (projections), Janice Pytel (character-defining costumes) and Mikhail Fiksel (subtle, culture-capturing music and sound).
"Concerning Strange Devices" joins a rich catalogue of works -- from "Madame Butterfly" and "The King and I" to "M. Butterfly" and "Chinglish" -- that consider the cultural misconceptions between East and West, and the links between Victorian and modern times. It also suggests that the "strangest device" of all might well be the human heart.