Chicago Theater Review: CONCERNING STRANGE DEVICES FROM THE DISTANT WEST (TimeLine Theatre)

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by Erika Mikkalo on January 25, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

A SPECTACULAR AND FASCINATING JOURNEY IN WHICH THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SEEM

Cameras have evolved from room-sized camera obscuras, to the box-like contraption of the nineteenth century, to the mundane and miniscule phone Erika Mikkalo’s Stage and Cinema review of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theater, Chicagocameras in every modern pocket. We are now subject to constant documentation and the distribution of images can be global and instantaneous. In Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, which opened Thursday at Chicago’s Timeline Theatre, playwright Naomi Iizuka presents a shimmering and intricate work which reveals that the photograph has always been less than utterly factual. Every image may tell a story, but rarely the full one:  The actual facts – whether for the distraction or edification of the viewer – may not match the scene portrayed.

The play is named after a 19th-century photography guidebook written by a Dutch trader for a Japanese audience to teach them how to use Western cameras. Since the author bends time in amazing ways – even connecting numerous generations on the Erika Mikkalo’s Stage and Cinema review of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theater, Chicagostage with just a few lines of dialogue – the plot is not easily summarized. A Western woman’s blushing fascination with the image of a tattooed rickshaw driver brings her to Japan. Although Isabel Hewlett (Rebecca Spence) has travelled in the wake of her arms-dealer husband (Craig Spidle), she seeks an experience of the “real” East; she is roundly mocked by photographer Adolfo Fasari (Michael McKeogh) in his studio where a tattooed model (Kryodell Galima) remains silent (Asian characters do not speak until the contemporary scenes, with the exception of a lone laugh at Western vanity).

Erika Mikkalo’s Stage and Cinema review of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theater, ChicagoThe scene then shifts from Meiji to modern, where Mr. Galima and Tiffany Villarin take the lead roles of Hiro, an art dealer, and Kiku, a translator, respectively. Likewise, McKeogh transforms from a disillusioned hack staging photos for the tourist trade to the inebriated cliché of an American abroad, an art historian named Dmitri Mendelssohn. All actors delivered adroit performances in a stark and enchanting setting.

Switching from past to present, the play’s interlinked triptych of scenes juxtaposes Japan’s Meiji era of the late nineteenth century with contemporary Americans visiting for cultural – and perhaps other forms – of tourism. With each facet of character revealed – both old and current – deceits, assumptions, and projections reflect and refract the viewer’s consideration of a multiplicity of themes: Orientalism, imperialism, technology, subjectivity, and perception are all subject to critique in this work. The romantic and pragmatic nature of relationships, art as commerce, and the fluid nature of the actual are examined through the prism Erika Mikkalo’s Stage and Cinema review of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theater, Chicagoof a near century and a half of accumulated history between the United States and Japan.

In its Midwestern premier, Devices evenly unfolds under the direction of Lisa Portes. The initial appearance of a simple set (Brian Sidney Bembridge, in collaboration with projection designer Mike Tutaj) echoes the play’s theme of visual deception. Both ancient and modern eras are reflected on either end of the performance space: A cloud of lanterns evokes the floating world of Japanese woodcuts, and an origami-like surface serves as a screen for images of geishas and grifters alike.

Himitsu-Bako were Japanese puzzle boxes that required anywhere from five to five-hundred specific manipulations to open. Devices is similarly filled with precise observations and allusions, but like any admirable work, it unfolds to reveal more questions than answers.

Erika Mikkalo’s Stage and Cinema review of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theater, Chicago

photos by Lara Goetsch

Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West
Timeline Theater
scheduled to end on April 14, 2013
for tickets, call 773-281-8463 Ext. 6 or visit http://www.timelinetheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://TheatreinChicago.com

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