Concerning Strained Devices

15. March, 2010 Theater 1 comment

Oy vey, this play. There’s a lot of interesting subject matter in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West about the introduction of photography to Japan in the 1800s, but what we get of that is told rather than illustrated, emerging in expository lectures between characters or direct address. It’s staged by Les Waters with a surfeit of style, but what’s being told isn’t really a story so much as various scenes with Americans in Yokohama in the late 19th and early 21st centuries holding forth on photography or Japanese culture, a bit like a series of blog ruminations converted into dialogue and monologue.

Bruce McKenzie and Teresa Avia Lim. Photo courtesy of

It starts with an American woman in Victorian garb, Kate Eastwood Norris as naive and chatty Mrs. Hewlett, explaining that she came to Yokohama because she was fascinated by photographs she had seen of mostly-naked men. She visits American photographer Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie, oozing impatient contempt) as a tattooed rickshaw driver (Johnny Wu) sits placidly, holding a pose even though the photographer is nowhere near his camera and seemingly oblivious when the two are talking about him.

Although he acts as if he doesn’t want to talk to this woman at all, Farsari holds forth on photography and the history of Japanese tattoos while Mrs. Hewlett bristles at Farsari thinking he’s got her all figured out. “I am neither well-intentioned nor do I think I do much good,” she huffs huffily.  By sheer coincidence Farsari runs into her husband by the projected postcard of a local dock. Jumpy and abrasive while ranting about what a shithole Japan is, Danny Wolohan is every inch the ugly American as boorish arms dealer Mr. Hewlett, only in a gray suit and top hat rather than Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap.

The three Americans are all hopelessly patronizing in their own way: Hewlett in his dismissive hostility, Mrs. Hewlett in her wide-eyed exoticism and Farsari in his disinterested pandering of orientalist kitsch. He’s not the least bit interested in who his subjects are, but he knows what the buyers want them to be.

After an unlikely bonding scene between Farsari and Mrs. Hewlett, she disappears from Yokohama without a word to her husband, never to be seen again. We then learn that despite his distaste for all things Japanese, Hewlett secretly has a daughter with a woman from a local teahouse, who’s both one of Farsari’s subjects and the woman we’ve seen silently grooming herself.

To ease us from Victorian times to the present day, Teresa Avia Lim walks out in modern cocktail dress and a plain American accent lecturing about how the human eye is like a camera. Then a sleek 21st-century cocktail bar rolls out and she becomes Kiku, an amusingly eager-to-please translator with a Japanese-accented, slightly squeaky voice.  It turns out that the plain-spoken American woman in the direct-address sequences is probably also Kiku, whose Stateside upbringing suggests that her shy, giggly Japanese routine is most likely a put-on. Lim also appears as a couple of mysterious Japanese figures who are seen rather than heard:  a much-speculated-about photographer’s assistant and Hewlett’s melancholy lover glimpsed combing her hair in a tiny room that opens up in the back of the stage.

Kiku’s father was an American international businessman, and there’s some speculation that he was an arms dealer—which is to say that thematically he’s the same as Hewlett, even though they’re many generations removed and probably not related at all. Her mother was a Japanese woman who left suddenly when Kiku was a child, so thematically she’s kind of the same as both the vanished Mrs. Hewlett and Mr. Hewlett’s Japanese mistress. There’s a sense that maybe this bit about her mother is supposed to help give closure to the dangling bits of the first act, but nothing really comes of this thin thread trying the eras together—it’s just there to make of what you will.

Kiku is meeting at the cocktail bar with art collector Dmitri (McKenzie), an obnoxiously self-important American guy who doesn’t let her get a word in edgewise even about things she knows much more about than he does. Having played assorted rickshaw drivers and blind monks in the first part, Wu shows up here as a slick young Japanese art dealer selling Farsari’s antique photographs.

There’s a lot of talk in these scenes about cameras as exotic technology and about the nature of photography: the fascination with the lives of the long-dead people in old photographs, and concerns about these old photos being fakes—or rather doubly fakes, because even when they were taken they depicted a nostalgic outsider’s idea of a more quaint and premodern Japan than still existed even at the time.

Here it takes on a few of the trappings of a tangled crime caper, except the more you follow the threads the less connected they appear to be. Con artist A describes a scam as if A and the supposed victim B were really the ones conning C, A’s ostensible partner in crime, except that B has already explained how B went along with it even though B knew B was being conned. So either A and B are not talking about the same incident at all, or even about each other, or their stories are mutually exclusive.

It’s the kind of play that’s tempting to call an intricate puzzle, but it’s one where the pieces don’t actually fit together. Really it’s more like a box of pretty pieces from completely different puzzles.

Although there’s too little of a story here to develop the characters into anything we might care about, the fragments are stylishly appointed in Waters’s production, with sharp costumes by Annie Smart, intricate tattoos, and a good mix of traditional and electronic music in Bray Poor’s sound design. The star of the show is really Mimi Lien’s set—it’s all angles, all black with a skylight and no period touches (at least on the Victorian end), with doors and rooms that emerge out of the blackness to marvelous effect. It’s nicely accentuated by Leah Gelpe’s video and still projections, from antique-looking photos to puzzling projections of a woman running and laughing—presumably Hewlett’s lover, but that and the primping are all we get of her.

A lot of stage tricks are used throughout the show, the most irritating of which are the bright flashes that lighting designer Andrew V. Nichols uses to split up the scenes. (Like the flash powder of early photography—yes, we get it, but just doing it once would have been fine.) The meeting at the cocktail bar is highlighted with video closeups of the actors’ faces and hands in triptych on one of the slanted side walls. In one conversation the light turns blue as Dmitri and Kiku glower during awkward silences, then returns to normal as the conversation resumes.  Why?  No idea. It’s all very intriguing, but it doesn’t help make the play seem any less incoherent. The show’s under two hours with no intermission, but even with all that razzle and eye-assaulting dazzle, it seems much longer.

Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West
Through April 11
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #29 of 2010, attended March 3.

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  1. 3 / 16 / 2010 8:34 pm

    Spot on! It’s disappointing when a great company like Berkeley Rep works with a play like this. It felt like it needed a lot more work before coming to stage.





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