Monday, September 12, 2016


Christopher Chen

Jomar Tagatac as Lin Bo
The “program” audience members are handed as they enter reads more like an exhibition guide to an art exhibit, “Made in China,” a phrase each person also has stamped upon the wrist by the ticket-taker at the door.  The Ashby Stage has been converted, it seems, into a pop-up art gallery installation, created, the program says, by Lin Shipin Bo, a dissident Chinese artist and by a so-called Xiong Gallery (  The latter organization’s “Statement of Purpose” declares in a mash-up of words that has to be read twice still not to be fully understood, “we defy disrupt dislodge the idea of gallery you will know our exhibitions when you are in them” (sic).  And as we enter what we suppose is the Shotgun Players theatre main stage, before us Lin Bo is on film first dressing and then undressing as a Chinese military officer and then on an adjoining screen, making himself up to look a bit like a Marilyn Monroe in white face.

And thus the audience member is welcomed to the next installation of Shotgun Players’ 25th season of productions playing in repertory, this time a play (or is it?) entitled Caught by the much-acclaimed and much-produced, young playwright, Christopher Chen.  Straddling the boundaries of live theatre, performance art, lecture, journalism, and a live interview much like the SF-popular “City Arts and Lectures,” Caught takes us down avenues that sometimes circle on themselves into never-ending rotations, that lead us to apparent dead-ends that may open into further twisted roadways, and that slap us into mazes where the way out is impossible to discover.  What is real, what is imaginary; who is artist, who is actor; who created, who is created; what is truth, is there truth – These are all questions that both we and those on the stage before us find ourselves ‘caught’ in traps trying to discern.

The first of four installations in this theatrical exhibit is a lecture by the artist himself, Lin Bo.  He recounts how he created across all of Beijing and greater China an imaginary protest of the Tiananmen Square massacre -- one with a widely announced date and time embedded in a much-produced logo but with no specified location ... and thus no real protest to be had.  He then tells in excruciating detail how he was arrested, held in prison, and tortured for two years, at the same time being told by his cruel inquisitors, “Of course, we know you are innocent.” 
Jomar Tagatac plays the artist Lin Bo, exacting his Chinese-dialect speech with big-mouth movements, a formal presentation style, and yet with waves of emotional intensity that speak of horrors only the artist has seen.  He returns in the next segment, entering a glassed-in conference room backed by a wall of framed “New Yorker” magazines (setting designed by Nina Ball).  There he is greeted by a young writer, Joyce Anderson (Elissa Stebbins), who has recently published his harrowing account in the famed magazine -- her first major article to launch her career.  Joining them, only to be a silent by-stander he claims, is her editor, Bob Levy (Mick Mize).  After some all-too-polite, overly-syrupy exchanges between the Chinese artist and the two Caucasian journalists, things start to get gradually and then more quickly confrontational as the writer and the editor begin hinting, then insinuating, and finally accusing that not all is true in what Lin Bo has claimed about his imprisonment.  As the room becomes like an interrogation room of a prison itself, more than just subtle hints of cultural and racial assumptions and biases emerge their ugly heads.  The skins of the onion keep coming off at infuriating speed, revealing a core much more hollow than any of the three could have imagined would be discovered and leaving us as audience stunned at the vehemence and the revelations pouring forth.

El Beh & Elissa Stebbins
What appears to be the end of a performance (“Was that the play,” I hear whispered by the women next to me) is now followed by the writer/actor, Joyce Anderson/Elissa Stebbins (which is she now?) becoming a post-show interviewer of the supposed creator of the work, Wang Min (played by El Beh).  As the interviewer delves into the motivation for presenting the work of the first two acts/scenes and into the meanings conveyed, phrases and words become more and more convoluted, especially from the creator herself – phrases like “arcane American truth battles” and “authoritative bundles of appropriation.”  The more the interviewer tries to understand what the artist is saying, the more they misconnect and tensions rise.  Are we watching more theatre?  Is this a real interview?  Have we been seeing some form of performance art?  What is the lens we are supposed to be using, or is there an appropriate lens?  And why is the interviewer Joyce now vomiting and screaming?

El Beh & Jomar Tagatac
The final section of whatever it is we are witnessing (play, art exhibit, real life, or whatever) occurs as two of the performance’s actors, Jomar Tagatac and El Beh, are shown back stage taking off their costumes, putting on street clothes, grabbing a bite to eat (tacos and chips), and starting to have a post-show conversation.  Their ensuing dialogue begins taking us down another trail where all is not as it seems, where the boundary between truths and lies is unclear, and where revelations occur that confuse real-time versus scripted remarks.  The two people before us themselves are confused if what they are hearing and if what they have each lived in their past five years, is truth or not.  Are they to take a relationship they have each had with a deceased, revered artist as real or not?  And is how living a lie actually closer to truth that we might want to admit?

Director Susannah Martin has taken Christopher Chen’s sometimes intriguing, sometimes confusing script and created a set of experiences that raise many questions about how much can reality be bent and still be somewhat in the realm of truth.  She and the playwright challenge us to examine the ‘rules’ we place on the different realms presented (drama, visual art, written journalism, live interviews).  Some of the scenes work better than the others, with the interview one being for me the least successful -- or for sure least enjoyable/tolerable to get through.  However, there is an overall impact that calls us to question our own assumptions about the intersection of art/drama/journalism, about the news we hear and read everyday, and about the stories/scripts we create and tout as our own truths.

Aiding Director Martin is an able exhibition/production crew that includes lighting by Ray Oppenheimer, sound by Matt Stines, costumes by Christine Crook, and projection design by Wesley Cabral.  Shotgun Players once again shakes up its audience’s predispositions of what theatre is supposed to be with a Caught that catches us time and again with facts, stories, and people that dupe us to believe they are all true -- even though we know we are watching things play out on a stage.

Rating: 3 E

Caught continues through September 25, 2016 and then in repertory through January 2017 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han

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