The first half hour or so may be the most intriguing part of Christopher Chen's 2014 play, before the playwright starts throwing in reveal after reveal.
Lin Bo is the most important Chinese artist you’ve never heard of.
He’s a persecuted political dissident (of course he is — does the American public get to hear about any other kind?); a conceptual artist who’s never made anything you’ve seen (he got his start painting calligraphy on soon-to-be-demolished Beijing buildings); the creator of a vague but viral meme mentioning June 4 (the day of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre), which landed him in a grimy prison for two years; and the humble-braggy subject of a New Yorker hagiography/profile you haven’t read yet.
Or is he? (Cue the cliché mystery-movie chords: dun dun duuun!)
Christopher Chen’s 2014 “Caught” is an exercise in trying to serially pull rugs out from under its audience, but it begins with a simple suspension of disbelief. We walk into Lin Bo’s latest “art show,” a collection of works installed inside the theater. (Sample object: “The G.A.P.P. in Knowledge,” a gold toilet overflowing with shredded newsprint that spills down a long red carpet.) Then Lin (Justin Huertas) takes the stage, talking us through a slideshow, accented by the studied earnestness and carefully-choreographed-to-look-casual hand gestures of your favorite TED Talk.
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Lin gives a brief primer on “District 798” (based on the real-life 798 Art District in Beijing), where the government allows dissident art to live: malformed depictions of Mao, murals satirizing the Cultural Revolution. “But take a closer look and things are not as they first appear,” Lin says, telegraphing Chen’s larger intent. “This is ‘subversion-lite’ art … In truth, District 798 is now a major, government-sponsored tourist attraction. In the end this is classic Mao. The appropriation of subversion to suffocate true subversion from within. Already there are plans for a Las Vegas makeover, with Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics.”
After the talk, Chen (with the help of set designer Lex Marcos and lighting designer Reed Nakayama) whisks the action to a swank office with a glass table and Scandinavian chairs, where a nervous New Yorker writer named Joyce (Jonelle Jordan) and her smiling but steely eyed editor, Bob (Bradford Farwell), start to gently interrogate Lin about his story. A Stanford professor named Maurice Freedman, who studied Chinese prisons in general and the prison where Lin was allegedly held, had read the New Yorker profile and wrote in to say a few of Lin’s details don’t add up — and sound suspiciously like other, already-publicized Chinese prison narratives.
The conversation gets tenser as Bob drops the smiles and ratchets up the pressure in unnerving ways. “I actually lived through it,” Lin says slowly. “So my experience might … trump? His … scholarship?”
“He’s at Stanford,” Bob growls, as if that ends the argument, then sneers: “Oh no! We’ll never understand what it means to be Chinese because we’re white! Don’t even go there. I am so over that.”
This first half hour or so may be the most intriguing part of “Caught,” partly because the disbelief we’ve suspended has already been toyed with (Lin’s fake art show is teasingly titled “Truth”) and partly because director Desdemona Chiang has coaxed some fine-tuned performances out of her actors. Huertas has a particular knack for playing studied-earnestness-hiding-a-secret onstage. (He was recently the Usher in “Everybody” at Strawberry Theatre Workshop, another — and, in the end, more compelling — experiment in self-aware meta-theatricality, which seems to be enjoying a minor fad on Seattle stages these days.) And Farwell’s increasingly racist hectoring, paired with Jordan’s mounting panic that she’s been played for a credulous hack, becomes deeply uncomfortable.
Then “Caught” starts to pull its rugs out from under us. The “art show” led to the “talk,” which led to the “scene,” which then becomes a “post-show interview” between Joyce and the “playwright” Wang Min (Narea Kang), which turns into a parody of postmodernism. Wang starts talking about real-life fabrication scandals (James Frey, Mike Daisey, Stephen Glass) and ends by wallowing in intellectual cotton candy that contains a few painfully sharp slivers of something like truth: “Why did they lie? Because a lie is a new home … A lie is a garden that grows sideways until its sidewaysness becomes straight. It is a feast made from mislabeled ingredients that tastes incredible. It is a documentary. A dollar bill. It is thinking outside the box so going further, going outside the inside of the outside of the box by going back inside the box to be outside the outside of the box” and so on.
I won’t spoil the final few “reveals” except to say they involve a dead, dissident Chinese artist named — wait for it — Yu Rong. (There is a real-life children’s-book illustrator named Yu Rong, but she lives in England.) The only thing truly trapped in “Caught” is the cast. They all do good work, but can’t save Chen from his own parlor games, which start off as mildly diverting but ultimately nosedive into vacuous tedium.
In a 2016 interview with American Theatre, Chen asked his own play a question: “The journey becomes: What’s this sneaky play up to? Where’s the meaning going to lie?”
That’s an easy one. The meaning lies in the lies. “Subversion lite” indeed.
“Caught,” by Christopher Chen. Through March 30; Intiman Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $35-$50; intiman.org