Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West," the Naomi Iizuka drama being given its world premiere by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, refers to cameras. Specifically, it refers to the early cameras that were used to photograph people and scenes in Japan after that country began to end its isolation from the rest of the world. Although the title implies that cameras were strange to the Japanese, the play is more concerned with how Westerners such as the English and Americans, were fascinated by the photographs coming from Japan in the later 19th century. Consequently, some photographers made a lucrative business of setting up photographs and selling them to Westerners.
Running about 90 minutes without intermission, the play opens with a primly dressed Englishwoman, Isabel Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris), complete with parasol (costumes by Annie Smart), talking about how she was stirred by the photo of a nearly naked, extensively tattooed man that she had found locked in a box in her father's desk when she was a girl. Now she's in Japan with her businessman husband, Edmund (Danny Wolohan), and has gone to the studio of well-known photographer Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie). When she arrives unannounced, he's photographing a tattooed young man (Johnny Wu) like the one she had seen in her father's photo. As Isabel and the abrasive Andrew talk, he adjusts his subject's pose as if the young man were an object, not a person. Later, her husband visits the photographer to gain some insight into why his wife has disappeared.
The setting shifts to a bar in 21st century Tokyo (sets by Mimi Lien with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, sound by Bray Poor and videos and projections by Leah Gelpe). That's where an American professor of art history, Dmitri Mendelssohn (McKenzie), is talking with a young Japanese woman, Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim). She is to serve as his interpreter when he meets with a Japanese entrepreneur, Hiro (Wu), from whom he wants to buy some Farsari photos. This bar scene is interminable, filled with boozy talk as Dmitri tries to flirt with the woman.
In subsequent scenes, we learn a little more about the characters, and there are some hints about what might have happened more than a century ago. Still, some puzzles remain, apparently on purpose, but there's not much satisfaction. And since the characters aren't particularly likable, it's hard to care much about them or what may or may not have happened to them. Part of this may lie with the play itself and part of it with Les Waters' direction, which seems to keep a distance between the characters themselves as well as the characters and audience.