The Huntington Theatre Company's latest production "39 Views" has impressive production values, a strong cast well suited to their roles, and a script with philosophical ambitions. West coast playwright Naomi Iizuka, currently head of UC/Santa Barbara's playwriting program, joins the long line of authors who've used the metaphor of the fake masterpiece to explore human frailties and deeper questions of beauty and truth. This line extends back at least to Mark Twain, whose play on the subject was just rediscovered. Iizuka, who's referred to as the country's most commissioned playwright, has imposed a schema on her plot which uses 39 scenes, suggestive of Hokusai's "39 Views of Mt. Fugi", but she employs rather conventional, almost soap-opera like situations which blur her arguments. The structure is supposed to tell the story from different viewpoints, but that's usually what drama does anyway. Iizuka also seems to have purposefully avoided a dramatic ending, as if that would make the audience think about the deeper implications of the action. No such luck.
Director Evan Yionoulis from Yale, who did Baitz's "Ten Unknowns" premiere for HTC in Spring 2002--another fake art play--and designer Adam Stockhausen, whose set for "Sonia Flew" was impressive last fall and just won an IRNE, do their best to keep the play flowing and interesting to look at. Some scene changes seem merely decorative, however. The author has also incorporated elements from Kabuki theatre in her drama. It should be remembered that the 19th century parts of this repertoire have just as much melodramatic hokum as Western plays from the same period, including an over-reliance on poses to indicate emotion. The one feature of that form which might make the show more interesting would be incorporating runways out into the audience, an effort most theatres aren't ready to make. The effect of having three traditional kurogo or hooded stagehands in black throughout the show, not only shifting furniture and dressing the cast but handing them props, also wears thin.
The script has a sense of being a novel or a screenplay adapted for the stage, which it isn't. The evening starts with unscrupulous Darius Wheeler down left, played by V Craig Henenreich, telling his favorite, much-rehearsed, story about buying oriental art from smugglers along the Burma Road. Upstage right behind a monumental transparent sliding screen, Christina Toy Johnson is being unwrapped from layer after layer of gorgeous kimonos by the kurogo. Finally revealed as Sersuko Hearn, a young academic specializing in ancient Japanese texts, Johnson joins him for contemporary banter about oriental art. They're joined by a senior member of her faculty, orientalist Owen Matthiasen, played by MacIntyre Dixon. The occasion, somewhere on the West Coast, is the opening of an exhibit by a mysterious contemporary Japanese collage artist,. Said artist never shows up, something's been started between the two principals, and fans of such fiction will realize the plot's underway. Johnson incidentally was last seen at the Huntington in "Sisters Matsumoto",
Next we meet Jane Cho as Claire Tsong, an art restorer dressed in the hippest style, and Brad Heberlee, as John Bell, an art historian who's Wheeler's assistant. The relationship between the two is never clear, but their convergence lets the author make more comments about art and commerce. Tsong's focused on the latter, as her story unfolds, but Bell's never becomes quite clear. That's unfortunate since Heberlee's character's attempt to write a text similar to an 11th century Japanese court lady's "pillow book" is pivotal to the plot. There's also a question of just how much Bell knows at various points in the story and what his real intentions are Cho was seen previously at the Huntington in "The Journey to the West". The final mystery added to the plotting is a woman, Elizabeth Newman-Orr played by Heather Lee Anderson, seeking to set up the clandestine import of an art treasure. Wheeler's her man, he bites and sets up the deal, or does he? And is Ms. Newman-Orr what she seems? Henenreich seems born to play this part, though the same qualities turn melodramatic as his relationship with Ms. Hearn develops. Iizuka's use of character names which might have cultural resonance adds to fabulistic quality of her story, but isn't a substitute for the missing subtext. Lafcadio Hearn for example, is remembered as the British author who lived in Japan for decades, writing in styles derived from the literature of those islands. Dr. John Bell was Doyle's model for Sherlock Holmes.
The evening is entertaining if somewhat stilted, rather like a post-modern version of one of those complicated drawing room dramas written 100 years ago. Teresa Snider-Stein's costumes are everything the author could have asked for, from Japanese period robes which could pass muster at the Grand Kabuki, at least seen from a distance, to modern couture on the women. An avant-garde dress on Cho, which blatantly employs a built-in quick change echoing a 19th century Kabuki effect is particularly witty. More so than the employment of woodblocks to emphasize certain lines drawn from the same tradition. The problem there lies in the fact that the musicians in traditional Japanese theatre are visible, and their interaction with the drama is direct, not recorded. So to with the use of the bamboo flute to underscore scenes and changes. Projected scenery behind the action is more effective though not as technically impressive as various transparent sliding panels and furniture wagons. Chris Perry's lighting helps keep things in focus. The use of the kurogo varies from scene to scene, not always consistently, probable by intention. Brandeis did Iizuka's homeless teenager's retelling of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" entitled "Polaroid Stories" earlier in the season. Perhaps local theatre's will now take a look at some of her intriguing titles. "39 Views" needs a plot worthy of its ambitions however.
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