For Isabel Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris), a lifelong obsession began with a single photograph. As a 10-year-old in 19th-century Boston, she saw a photo of a nearly naked Japanese man, his body covered in tattoos. She was entranced — aroused, even — by a beauty completely alien to her Victorian upbringing.
She failed to realize, however, that photos only occasionally tell the truth. When Japan began opening its borders to Western trade in 1854, the country began to experience a cultural trauma, its deep traditions superseded by new technologies and fashions. Photography played perhaps the greatest role in accelerating the country's exposure to the West. As pictures of Japan began to circulate in Europe and America, tourists clamored for firsthand glimpses of geishas and samurai.
The problem was that many of those 19th-century Japanese photos simply showcased what Americans wanted to see. Even in the earliest days of Westernization — called the Meiji, or enlightened, period in honor of the forward-thinking emperor who ruled from 1868 to 1912 — much of the documentary evidence of traditional culture was staged entirely for Western eyes. In Meiji-era photos, the "samurai" were very often rickshaw drivers playing dress-up, and many of the photographers were Americans and Europeans more interested in profit than in Japanese culture.
For young Isabel, however, a single Meiji-era photo offered the promise of exotic bodies on display. And years later, accompanying her husband on a trip to Yokohama, she finds herself prowling the red-light district in search of a flesh-and-blood version of the tattooed man who continues to haunt her.
So begins Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, Naomi Iizuka's enigmatic drama now making its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. The play bounces from past to present to explore an impressive array of themes, moving between 19th-century cultural representation and 21st-century sexuality. How is it, then, that a script so full of interesting ideas turns out to be such a crashing bore?
The play's problems seem to arise from a joint failure of writing and directing. I can imagine an energetically staged version of this same script; director Les Waters, however, maintains a pace that feels lethargic from first scene to last. Meanwhile, the script lacks verbal panache. The play flirts with profound themes, but Iizuka only intermittently manages to find language rich enough to support her big ideas.
As a result, Strange Devices is both frustrating and dull — frustrating because its 90-minute runtime isn't enough to engage fully with the issues it raises, and dull because those 90 minutes prove to be very long minutes indeed.
After opening in 19th-century Yokohama, the play lurches forward to the present, where an art collector (Bruce McKenzie) meets up with a translator (Teresa Avia Lim) and an art dealer (Johnny Wu) to negotiate the sale of a collection of Meiji-era photos. The meeting devolves into drunkenness, seduction, and deceit, marking out clear parallels between the art trade and the sex trade. The art in question is, after all, a collection of photographic portraits. To traffic in those images is to risk trafficking in other people's bodies and lives, however misleading the images themselves may be.
Before play's end, we're treated to far-ranging speeches about the invasiveness of today's surveillance society and the prevalence of personal photos on the Internet. At last, we return to 19th-century Yokohama, where Isabel reflects on her own mysterious fate. The script's erratic timeline may be an impressive feat of free association, but its scattered bits of story never accumulate; it's tough to imagine that the ending will really bowl anyone over, though it's clearly meant to. The only thing I felt at play's end was relief.
As you should expect from an outstanding company like Berkeley Rep, the production is technically masterful. Mimi Lien's sleek, angular set keeps shifting to reveal hidden compartments, functioning somewhat like the interior chambers of a giant camera, and Alexander V. Nichols' lights periodically blind the audience with massive flashbulbs that punctuate each scene. It's certainly a dramatic effect, but it gets a little obnoxious due to overuse — the intense flashes are liable to give you a headache. (A Twitter-friendly review might go something like this: "Boredom ... boredom ... boredom ... PAIN.")
At least no one involved can be faulted for lack of ambition. A number of playwrights have attempted to pull off the trick Iizuka attempts here — that is, layering past and present so that audiences can sense the full weight of history upon each character. More often than not, the approach feels arbitrary or even trite, with historical context taking the place of character development. The most successful example I can think of is Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, in which 19th- and 20th-century characters appear to intermingle in an English country house. Over the course of Stoppard's play, the eras almost miraculously dovetail into a single dramatic arc, leading to an ending that's frankly devastating.
No such devastation occurs here. Brimming with concepts but short on impact, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West might be called "academic" in the pejorative sense — that is, it's likely to provoke discussion but less likely to entertain. One of Iizuka's characters puts it best: the layering of past and present is "like déjà vu, but less interesting." Let's hope the play gains a bit more life in another incarnation.