“It was real, and if I had enough money, it was mine.” It’s a mercenary statement when applied to art; when applied to a person, it’s absolutely chilling. 36 Views, Constellation Theatre’s first offering of the 2013/2014 season, is a stunning rumination on the nature of art, identity, authenticity, and the meeting of cultures.
Constellation’s advertising suggests a steamy art thriller, full of tension, and intrigue. And they definitely deliver on that end. Antiquities dealer Darius Wheeler (Jim Jorgensen) makes his living as an expert in Asian art, smuggling, stealing, and lying to make his fortune. His assistant John Bell (Ashley Ivey), art restorer and forger Claire Tsong (Tuyet Thi Pham), and professor Owen Matthiassen (David S. Paglin) are all caught in the Wheeler’s charismatic orbit. Everything is thrown out of sync, however, by introduction of three beautiful objects: a Heian-era manuscript; Setsuko Hearn (Sue Jin Song), a brilliant academic with an interest in the piece; and Elizabeth Newman-Orr (Megan Dominy), a mysterious woman with an interest in Wheeler’s criminal background. I use the term “object” deliberately; 36 Views works quite well as a conventional suspense story, but there’s a lot more working under the surface.
Playwright Naomi Iizuka has constructed a work where everything stands for something else. Each relationship is mirrored elsewhere, and the ambitions and desires of the characters resonate through the play as a whole. Most importantly, works of art stand in quite easily for the relationships between people. Wheeler is a traditionalist who thinks of himself as appreciating beauty for beauty’s sake; Hearn can’t help but see the personal and social politics behind simple gestures; Tsong believes that art is capital, just money playing at being something else. When Wheeler regales Hearn with the stories of how he came by his wares, Hearn rightfully calls him out for the stereotypical nature of his tales. She also accuses him of feeding her slick pick-up lines. But does that matter if the stories and the sentiments happen to be true? Can we appreciate the art – the beauty – of another culture without appropriating it? Does money give someone the right to art? Is authenticity a product of intention or of reception? And can an American chastise someone from another culture for failing to live up to that culture’s standards of “good art”?
These are particularly interesting questions for a company like Constellation, which has immersed itself in world literature in past seasons. Gilgamesh, The Ramayana, even The Good Woman of Setzuan: all of these show an appreciation of Asian cultures but open the company to charges of cultural appropriation. Founding Artistic Director of Constellation Allison Arkell Stockman bravely and competently confronts these issues in 36 Views. The production lays the questions out without beating the audience over the head with the answers. In fact, it’s not certain that any answers are provided at all.
Instead, Stockman invites the audience to realize the complexity of the issues, and the difficulty of resolving them. Iizuka’s play combines Western and Asian performance styles, and sometimes veers quite heavily away from realism. The cast members are all talented actors, but the really impressive thing is their ability to make this seem, if not natural, at least organic. But the organic nature of the transitions doesn’t absolve the characters or the company of the issues that are being raised. For instance: if the whole cast goes through a series of martial arts poses, is there a difference between what the white actors and the Asian cast members are doing? Is one more authentic than the other? Less offensive? Even the technical aspects are designed to question as much as they please. A.J Guban’s set is evocative in rice paper screens and dark, polished wood, but it’s Aaron Fisher’s projections that really make the show. Asian art is projected in vivid color across the rice paper screens, the wood panelling, and even the characters, illuminating and consuming. Hokusai’s famous 36 Views of Mount Fuji are chief among them, and the projections alternately serve as setting and art history lesson. While we judge Wheeler for his cavalier attitudes, we find ourselves admiring and coveting works of art in the same way. I found myself thinking, “That would look great in my living room,” and only then realized how well Stockman had succeeded.
36 Views is that rare gem, a play that is both entertaining in the moment and able to provoke conversation long after the fact. I can’t imagine the work having a finer life than the one Constellation Theatre Company has given it.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes long, with a fifteen minute intermission.