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Caught — InterAct Theatre

untitled (119)“Caught” is Christopher Chen’s exercise in theatrical trompe l’oeil. Nothing is what it appears to be, and that’s the point.

Chen, in “Caught,” at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre, captures the storyteller’s disposition to embellish, often to the point of eroding truth or accuracy. Using a character, Lin Bo, a Chinese artist branded as a dissident, for an example, Chen goes on to demonstrate how exaggeration or a manufactured impression turns dangerous, or at least threatening, when it destroys reasonable perception of a place, person, or condition. Often, the media picks up or is the main disseminator of a dramatic story that isn’t precise enough, or vetted enough, to stand the tests of pure journalism or factual account.

Chen is tricky. While creating his own depiction of woven deception, he includes enough verifiable material to give the lies characters tell, or the spin they elect to give a subject, credence. Lin Bo, for instance, made a hero and a much desired public speaker because of false statements he gives a writer from the New Yorker, includes broad shreds of true stories he’s read from Chinese dissidents who endured the tortures, deprivations, and incarceration he claims as his own. Lin Bo is lying about himself. He is discredited by the writer’s editor, based on a letter from a China scholar at Stanford, yet what he talks about happened in actuality to others.

So where is the truth? Clearly it is in the testimony of the sources Lin Bo co-opted while crafting his own story of horror at the hands of Chinese authorities. You see the layers with which Chen builds his snarkily constructed warning about believing everything, or anything, you read and hear. A Chinese woman, in a later episode of Chen’s three-part exercise in lampooning obfuscation, says she worries that all the West hears about the treatment of Chinese dissidents, including artists who are jailed for offending the state, misleadingly clouds Americans’ perception of life in China or the full view of what China is as a land and a culture. She bedevils an interviewer, a museum curator who is not a professional broadcaster or journalist, by refusing to be concrete about any tenet, policy, or opinion and by accusing the curator of trying to put words in her mouth or of trying to distort the truth to satisfy her own need for clarity and definition that might not exist.

That woman, the one being interviewed, as roundabout and as irritating as she can be in insisting she’s being misunderstood and misquoted in both tone and intent, illustrates best what Chen in espousing in “Caught,” that nothing is so black-and-white or cut-and-dried or elementally true that it tells an entire story. China, or America for that matter, cannot be contained in one story, one experience, one incident, or one person’s life. Every place and every one is a collection of truth that jostle and jangle, contrast and contradict, represent Jekyll and Hyde. Shaw might say it best in “Heartbreak House” when Hesione tells Ellie, “No man has his vice and virtues in neat little sets. They have them anyhow,” meaning in conflict with one another.

This conflict is the stuff of drama. It’s also what keeps historians, biographers, Stanford scholars, and New Yorker writers busy. In “Caught,” Chen goes about is business playfully but seriously. He finds comedy in the absurdity of the quest for one-size-fits-all answers that don’t exist and irony in the idea that behind the most egregious lie might stand someone else’s horrific truth. The caution, Chen says, is preferring the fairy tale, with his gripping, simplistic nature, over a painstaking and complicated foray into learning what is real. The caution is in not accepting what is real and surrendering to a penchant to explain, interpret, or classify, i.e. to make a story, politics and art falling most prey to this tendency,

“Caught” is at times more interesting than entertaining. Chen is prone to get lost in his own jokes and conceits. But Rick Shiomi’s production at InterAct catches the brightness, wit, and tongue-in-cheek that signify the best and most amusing parts of “Caught.'” He is also adroit at realizing Chen’s intent and bringing the author’s theme to the fore.

As mentioned, the play is in three distinct parts, one dealing with the artist Lin Bo, another featuring a second artist, Wang Min (played delectably by Bi Jean Ngo), and a third that is calculated to truly play with the audience’s head and test, in a way, how much attention we were paying to Chen’s basic theme. The sections have diminishing returns. The Lin Bo sequence scores by being both light and harrowing. It seems to be building to something of which Chen’s trompe l’oeil approach will handily dispose. The scene of Wang Min’s interview is saved by the versatility of Ngo and of Christie Parker as the interviewer. The third section, cheeky and shrewd though it appears, extends “Caught” unnecessarily and becomes tedious. Toward the end of the sequence, played well by Ngo and Justin Jain, I twirled my finger in imitation of the “wrap it up” sign floor managers give TV hosts and actually whispered, “End” a few times. Chen’s point was made. It was time to go home.

In a way, “Caught” is three plays with a unifying theme, getting the audience to buy into anything that is being peddled, even if once it becomes clear the information presented is hype or meant to skew opinion in particular direction.

I am tempted to change that “three” to “four” because “Caught’s” ruses being the second you enter the Adrienne mainstage where InterAct performs. The stage is set up as an art gallery. A person in a formal uniform greets you and hands you a guide to the exhibition called “Possible Provocations,” ostensibly featuring photographic pieces by the Chinese artist and dissident, Lin Bo, whose modus seems to be taking pictures of people looking at pictures or advertising signs, people in the act of being impressed by, or at least momentarily attracted to, images meant to influence. The poster-size color photos reinforce another of Chen’s themes, about the plasticity and subjectivity of art and its beholders. Lin Bo’s mock exhibition, said to be hosted by InterAct on behalf of the fictional Mana Gallery, also sets the legerdemain of Shiomi’s production in motion. It smacks of the fakery and trendiness “Caught” comments on so thoroughly. The same photographs will be attributed to another character, Wang Min, further on in Chen’s play.

The opening sequence of the scripted play is the most engaging. Christie Parker, doubling as a greeter for InterAct, makes random announcements before introducing the supposed Mana Gallery first-nighters for “Possible Provocations” to the featured artist, Lin Bo, a man whose run-ins with authorities in his native China have led to a sudden imprisonment that lasted two years and who includes the 1989 Red Army invasion of Tiananmen Square among the slides he includes in his presentation to the “Mana” gathering. (KYW-TV designer Bill Ng did a wonderful job designing and assembling the visuals for “Caught.”)

Justin Jain is brightly adorable as Lin Bo. He is open and optimistic in spite of all he endured in China, two years in an open-air cell that was subject to weather and which he often shared with rapists and murderers who could get violent. The food he describes as a weak cabbage based soup that might have a carrot included if the prisoners were lucky that day.

Jain, as Lin Bo, immediately gets the attention of the Mana crowd, really the InterArt audience, with his tale of inattention to human life, judged criminal or not. His art, though the basis of his incarceration, is immaterial next to the penalty he paid for creating it. Bo’s specific offense is sending a mass e-mail notice of a fictional protest rally, one that called for action and provided a date and time when the protest would occur, but no location for it, a key intentional omission. Chen, finding one more instance of his “what is it really?” theme, has Bo setting up a virtual rally that will allegedly have Chinese people going en masse to their computers at a given time and meeting as a group to show their disdain for China’s oppressive regime. The idea has a kind of romance, but officials find it dangerous and arrest Bo four days before the scheduled event.

Bo’s story is engrossing, and Jain is charmingly boyish and enthusiastic in presenting it. He refers people who want to know about his ordeal in China to the New Yorker article a writer named Joyce wrote about him.

The sequence is a rousing success. Jain has the InterAct audience eager to learn more about Lin Bo. We’ve already forgiven his art for being so inconsequential. The man himself is the interest. We want to know what happens next for him. His experience in a Chinese detention camp certainly reinforces our idea of what happens to political dissidents in China, including those who plot something as innocuous, if as impressively inventive, as Lin Bo’s web-based rally.

Joyce, the writer, is upset. She is not as happy with Lin Bo as she was when she hungrily recorded and repeated his story for her New Yorker piece, a breakthrough that vaults her significantly higher on the freelancers’ food chain and that sets her up for an exciting period professionally, especially if moviemakers bid on the rights to film Lin Bo’s story.

Joyce’s celebration may be premature. A professor from Stanford has challenged details of Lin Bo’s account of his time in prison. He points out that he studied the exact detention center in which Lin Bo was confined and that it had no open-air cells and had a diet based on potatoes as opposed on one based on cabbage soup.

It turns out that other Chinese prisons meted out punishment, living arrangements, and cuisine exactly as Lin Bo described, but the Stanford expert and Joyce’s editors are only interested in corroborating Lin Bo’s statements with his actual experience. Joyce’s editor, played with great energy and fatuous sincerity by an insisting, intimidating Ames Adamson, is particularly rabid to learn the truth. The New Yorker’s reputation in on the line, not to mention Joyce’s future as a nationally published reporter of complex stories.

The grilling of Lin Bo is merciless, and Chen and Shiomi are canny in the play they go about writing and staging it. Joyce, portrayed in way that earns the character compassion by Jessica DalCanton, starts subtly but ramps up her accusations as she asks innocent sounding questions that have a lot of hidden force behind them. Adamson’s editor, looking like one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in professorial plaids and tweeds, is less kid-gloved. He leashes into Lin Bo, calling him a liar and barely restraining himself from assaulting him physically.

The audience cringes. Jain plays Lin Bo as being so wounded and assaulted that his horrible two years have been cast into doubt because someone at Stanford, who studied the detention center a year before Lin Bo entered it, disputes some elements of his account.

The stand-off and result is a great dramatic triumph for Shiomi, Chen, Jain, DalCanton, and Adamson. We are on edge, and “Caught,” in revealing its deeper purpose, has tremendous energy.

Chen suggests so much, it makes your head spin to keep track of the swirl of ideas and concepts. The search for truth we expect from Tom Stoppard is melding with headlines about the non-fiction hoaxes of actor Mike Daisey and writers Jayson Blair and James Frey who manufactured stories they presented as news or non-fiction. An epiphany of Oprah-atic proportions is expected. “Caught” has become the kind of play InterAct artistic director Seth Rozin seeks to find, a provocative presentation of a contemporary conundrum, the credibility of reported information, even as disseminated by major, august, influential news sources.

The question is where Chen can take “Caught” next. Do we see the future of Lin Bo and Joyce? If Lin Bo is discredited, is his art, as put on exhibition by the Mana Gallery, also negated? If the art wasn’t good enough to stand on its own and only given a show because of Lin Bo’s notoriety as a martyr to Chinese brutality, what does that say about Mana’s criteria for choosing displays? The questions and repercussions are endless. Chen certainly knows how to open a can of worms.

Obviously, he regards what the “Caught” audience learns about Lin Bo to be sufficient because, for his second beat, he goes on to a different artist with a different kind of bout with Chinese officials.

All gets muddy here. While the sequences featuring Lin Bo had some dramatic structure and a lot of thematic underpinnings, the section depicting Wang Min is more free-form and more static It doesn’t take its actors from their two stools. Dialogue drove the Lin Bo portion, but there was a lot going on behind the words Jain presents directly to the audience and the byplay between Lin Bo, Joyce, and her editor. Also, while Jain’s Lin Bo represented the stereotypically innocent Asian, a la B.D. Wong’s character in “M. Butterfly,” Bi Jean Ngo’s Wang Min, registers as the stereotypically inscrutable Asian. I told you Christopher Chen was playful.

untitled (120)The Wang Min segments are too much talk. In fact, it is the befuddlement Wang Min causes while her interviewer, the curator of an exhibition of the exact photos once attributed so far to Lin Bo, makes serially unsuccessful attempts to encapsulate all the artist is saying in a phrase or two to which Wang Min might agree, that eventually bogs down this part of “Caught.”

Tidy summary of Wang Min’s work never happens. Wang Min is of the “it is what it is” school. Like a latter day Susan Sontag, she wants to defy interpretation. She says her art is what the viewer sees. She has had trouble with the government in her native China, but she shrugs that off as the officials gleaning something, an alienation of sorts, she did not intend and wasn’t there except for them saying it was.

No matter how Parker’s increasingly frustrated interviewer tries to put Wang Min’s ideas into a nutshell her audience can take away as a neat statement, the artist disagrees with her take on what she said and constantly corrects and tries to enlighten her.

The cat-and-mouse game is entertaining for a while, and Bi Jean Ngo makes a work of art of Wang Min’s dodges and restating of her thoughts and positions, but the sequence goes on far too long without any forward motion, without an idea that some insight will come that has been not understood within the first three minutes of a 20-minute scene.

Chen has philosophy to share, not to mention philosophy to spare. Wang Min might have the best grasp on what art is and how inconsequential official response to it would be if it wasn’t for political might she doesn’t accuse China of imposing anyhow, but the showdown between the curator and Wang Min becomes too repetitive and too contentious for long consumption.

Wang Min may cleverly stave off any attempt the curator makes to classify her or her art, just as she rejects China’s authority to label, categorize, and politicize it. Everything the character says is refreshing, yet she wears out her welcome, as does the sequence. Ngo and Parker can border on comic genius in presenting the scene, Ngo in particular, but Wang Min’s argument becomes arcane and has no hope of resolution. There’s no way to pin Wang Min down, mainly because she’s right not to want to define or limit her oeuvre or, for that matter, the nature of China. Chen obviously enjoys the discussion and the dozen ways Wang Min defies the curator’s obsession with wanting to put all into a compact compartment, or box.

Wang Min actually takes the cliché of “thinking outside the box” to task in a passage Ngo makes very funny.

Chen, in the end, outsmarts himself, and Shiomi, Ngo, and Parker cannot find enough variations to keep the Wang Min sequence fresh for all of Ngo’s virtuosity or the interesting nature of Wang Min’s side of the discussion. “Caught” loses the dramatic impetus that made it so watchable and engaging while Jain’s Lin Bo was in focus. It slips into being a polemic, an astute one but one that seems more fitting for a lecture hall than for a theater.

The third act is the most puzzling, a set piece in which Jain and Ngo, representing themselves as actors after a performance, share McDonald’s fries and seem to be having a relationship while bickering over which of them actually had a five-year romantic liaison with a leading Chinese rebel mentioned several times in “Caught” as the central figure in China’s protests.

Chen seems to be testing the credulity of the audience with this sequence. Both actors claim to be the lover of a Tiananmen hero who died in a China prison cell.

Even the name of the dissident is a joke, a fairly transparent one that raises a red flag (no pun intended) when Lin Bo mentions it during the first act. For one thing, the name suggests a telling phrase in English. For another, it contains a letter rarely used in Chinese words or names.

The byplay between Jain and Ngo becomes too tedious to ever be clever. It’s extraneous gilding on the lily and goes on long enough to make us wish for its ending. “Caught” has run its course before this scene begins. By including it, Chen has done too much. He’s so in love with his ruses, he is unable to help perpetrating one too many.

Chen has a lot to say in “Caught,” and his basic ideas are provocative and refreshing. The problem is Chen ran out of play, though not thoughts, after his second scene, and while subsequent sequences have merit and accentuate “Caught’s” theme, they do entertain with the same assurance and seem included to make or reinforce points rather than to forge or introduce new territory.

Justin Jain is a disarming Lin Bo. His speech about his art exhibition and his imprisonment grasps you and makes you care about this young man.

Jain creates a pleasant persona for Lin Bo, an act that, in “Caught,” parallels another young man having to invent a persona for Lin Bo.

Jain truly finds the tone and level of enthusiasm artists adopt when they are speaking of their work, especially if they are seeking to sell pieces or get a new grant cooking. He is equally adept at scenes in which Lin Bo must defend his story and the scene in which Lin Bo capitulates to pressure coming from the New Yorker editor while trying to answer his allegations.

Jain’s portrait is complete. He conveys a newly launched celebrity of the world as deftly as he shows a character fighting for his dignity as he faces a barrage of questions and doubts from Joyce and the editor.

Ames Adamson is superb as Bob, the editor whose grooming and wardrobe say he’d rather be in the country riding his prize horse than in a Manhattan office doing anything.

Bob is savage is his pursuit of the truth from Lin Bo. He doesn’t demur from being insulting or condescending. He is a man who will not even pretend to understand why Lin Bo fabricated the information he gave to Joyce. He has not time or talent for diplomacy. Adamson shows Bob ready to pounce at the slightest discrepancy he asks Lin Bo to reveal.

Bob is relentless, and the result of his persistence is both shocking and funny. Although some of the humor, or intended humor, hits home in a way that makes you feel sorry for Lin Bo, no matter what he might have done to earn Bob’s ire.

Jessica DalCanton works from a core of reality as Joyce who tells Lin Bo her career as a major magazine writer is ruined if it turns out the Stanford professor is correct, and Lin Bo was not confined in the prison where he says he was kept. You see her try to coddle Lin Bo and appeal to him as a friend to confess whether any part of his story was untrue. You also see her worry and anger when Lin Bo’s guilt seems evident even though he does waver from his denial of wrongdoing.

Joyce has a lot at stake, as DalCanton conveys in her cold interrogation of Lin Bo along with her deep desire to be able to give him the benefit of a doubt. Like many who are disappointed, DalCanton’s Joyce does not show empathy or mercy for Lin Bo even when she realizes his life is in the same stage of shambles hers is about to become. She has the good grace to want the world to be fairer in general but knows her world is going to have to change in a way for which she did not plan and that negates all that she has accomplished to date.

Christie Parker shows great naturalness as both the Mana Gallery director who greets the InterAct audience then introduces Lin Bo and as the flustered curator who obsessively attempts to devise aphorisms and metaphors to denote concepts Wang Min prefers to keep from being categorized too absolutely or distinctly.

Parker beautifully portrays a serious, curious, orderly woman breaking down when confronted with someone who says she wants objects to stand for what they are and feels no need to define or interpret them.

Bi Jean Ngo turns Wang Min’s call for realistic looks at art into a grand comic aria of logic and proportion. Arguing and correcting Parker’s curator at every turn, she will not have words put in her mouth to give a neat recitation of what her work means of reflects.

Wang Min’s ideas answer a dictatorship’s worry about an artwork’s purpose and an American interviewer’s yen to pigeonhole an artist. They state an artwork speaks for itself and doesn’t need explanation.

Ngo doesn’t miss a beat as Wang Min constantly foils the curator and makes her feel inadequate to continue in discussion with one who will deny and defy classification. She endows Wang Min with wit and purpose. She establishes her character’s superiority and refusal to be misrepresented.

Of the all the behind-the-scenes people who worked on “Caught,” my most enthusiastic kudos go to the graphic artist that designed InterAct’s poster for Chen’s play. It depicts a portrait of Lin Bo in a picture frame that has posts running at equal intervals between its upper and lower planes to represent jail bars. Underneath the alleged picture is a museum label explaining what it is.

Melpomene Katakalos’s set was well thought out. The art gallery seemed quite authentic, and as the InterAct stage took other shapes, including a room where the actors hang following a show, the sets quickly established a sense of place and made it easy to get accustomed to each scene of the play.

Rachel Coon’s costumes were right for the various characters. Peter Whinnery’s lighting provided atmosphere while also making it maneuver around the theater.

Rick Shiomi makes “Caught” as lively as possible given the density of the script in the second act and the extended chicanery of the third. The movement of the production was admirable throughout.

“Caught” runs through Sunday, November 16, as produced by Theatre Exile at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, in Central Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $22 and can be ordered by calling 215-568-8079 or by visiting www.interact.org.

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