15 June 2016

Caught by Sideshow Theatre

We saw Sideshow Theatre's Caught at the Victory Gardens theater last weekend. While we didn't enjoy this one as much as the two other Sideshow productions we've seen (Idomeneus and Stupid Fucking Bird), we found ourselves discussing it a good deal afterwards--it's a tricky play--not at all obvious what it "means."

The set includes a selection of what appears to be contemporary Chinese dissident art, which the audience is encouraged to walk on the stage and view as if the stage is a gallery. Afterwards, the artist is introduced (we may have seen the recent New Yorker profile of him) and gives a talk reflecting on his artmaking, which led to a stint in a Chinese prison. Then we see a conversation among the artist and the writer of the New Yorker profile and her editor. There are concerns about whether elements of the artist's story are true.

This is followed by a conversation between the actor who played the New Yorker profile writer and the young Chinese woman who wrote the preceding scene and actually created all of the artwork on the stage. The artist-playwright references real-life conflations of expectations of truth with fiction such as Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and fake-memoirist James Frey. She talks about how American ideas of "truth" are different from those of other cultures and how proud we are of own "truthfulness." However, she wonders whether our fixation on facts enables us to ignore more substantial issues. The conversation is at first friendly and then fraught, as the theoretical jargon spouted by the artist-playwright completely confounds the actor, who just wants to know what the point of it all is.

The final scene involves two Chinese-Americans at home (the actors include the one who played the male dissident artist in the beginning and the female artist-playwright in the previous scene). These characters have created everything that preceded this scene in tribute to a dissident artist--their mentor--who died in a Chinese prison. After they congratulate themselves on an excellent performance they begin to quarrel about proper interpretations of their mentor's legacy and eventually realize that they each had relationships with the mentor that the other didn't know about. The mentor fooled them both.

So the play is very obviously (perhaps too obviously) about how we get hung up on "truth." And as we watched it I think we felt that it really was much too obvious.

But in retrospect the way each scene builds on what happened before--rather like covering over an onion, instead of  unpeeling it--does make you seriously reflect. Throughout, you are sort of wondering--is this really the play now?  Is that really the artist?  Is there really such a person?  Is the art real, or was it just made up for this play? (Throughout, the assertion that the show is a collaboration with a gallery is repeated in various iterations.)  What does that even mean? As the artist-playwright would say, it's not the point. Afterwards you're replaying it all in your head, wondering whether or when what's true really matters.

Very thought provoking play.  Well worth seeing.

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