On the surface, Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views is a straightforward story set against the backdrop of the art world. It’s about an art dealer with a shady reputation, an art scholar who gets drawn into his web, and a couple of high-end criminal schemes.
But even though its plot is a mixture of suspenseful threads that keep the viewer interested, 36 Views is not just a thriller. It’s a thoughtful examination of truth and trickery, of beauty and betrayal. And the appeal of Japanese art plays a big role. The play gets its title from 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, a famed series of 36-19th century paintings by Katsushika Hokusai.
Director Peter DeLaurier’s striking production is imbued with a convincing ambiance of Japanese art and culture. Using techniques from Kabuki Theatre, including dance, costume changes and wooden clappers that underscore dramatic moments, DeLaurier constructs a deft mixture of dramatic styles. (Asaki Kuruma is the artistic consultant, and Michael Goldberg is the Kabuki movement coach.)
And Jorge Cousineau’s masterful work – he’s credited as Scenic/Sound/Projection Designer – envelopes the audience in an inventive artistic atmosphere. The main set piece is a wall of opaque Japanese screens that slide open to allow entrances and exits, as well as to reveal hidden pieces of art. But the screens are also a canvas – at one point, Japanese calligraphy is painted onto one of the panels. And the screens serve as a background for Cousineau’s eye-opening animated sequences, in which painting, calligraphy, and sensual imagery merge.
The plot? It’s about Darius Wheeler, a dealer who maintains a façade of elegance but is determined to acquire art and antiquities by any means necessary. At a gallery opening he meets Setsuko Hearn, a scholar with an interest in pillow books, the intimate, artistic diaries of ancient Japanese noblewomen. As their mating dance begins, we also meet John, Darius’ brilliant but awkward assistant; he’s a young man with many skills, none of them social.
John is captivated by the guerilla artist Claire Tsong, and against his better judgment he passes off his own love poems, coupled with Claire’s realistic-looking artwork, as a long-lost 11th century pillow book. Darius uses the promise of the pillow book to further his own ambition and to seduce Setsuko. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman asks Darius to smuggle some artwork into the States for her; he agrees, but it doesn’t work out as she imagined.
36 Views is concerned with different views of beauty; Setsuko seeks an emotional connection with beautiful objects, while Darius treats them as a commodity. Iizuka gives each character a distinct point of view and a distinctive style of dialogue, which adds to the play’s richness.
Joe Guzmán plays Darius with a blunt edge, emphasizing the character’s cold, controlling side. It’s an interesting interpretation, but if he had been less dispassionate in his interactions with Setsuko, I would have found their relationship more believable.
Joanna Liao is fragile and apprehensive as Setsuko, and she has some nice interplay with Stephen Novelli as an erudite fellow faculty member. David Pica scores big laughs as John, especially in a monologue where John improvises an imagined history for his pillow book. Bi Jean Ngo is fast-talking and hyper as Claire, and Angela Smith is lively and alluring as the mystery woman.
36 Views is an intriguing examination of beauty’s relationship with truth and commerce, played against a dynamic, visually enchanting background.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.
36 Views plays through June 26, 2016 at the Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th and Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.