Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West": ☼ ☼ ☼

There is no absolute truth. The eyes discern only a portion of reality and leave it to the brain to interpret what is real and what is not. Also, people lie. And photographs are staged.

Is this what Naomi Iizuka's new play "Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West" is about?

Perhaps. It may also be a study of imperfection. Each of her characters is flawed, and each has something important to hide. Nineteenth Century characters Isabel Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her husband Edmund (Danny Wolohan) are hiding desires for illicit and exotic sex (he, in addition, has a secret Japanese mistress and daughter). Twenty First Century characters Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim), Hiro (Johnny Wu) and Dmitri Mendelssohn (Bruce McKenzie) are con artists. The depth of their various shell games do not come clear until the very end -- if then.

Even the tattooed man is just an actor.

Playwright Iizuka has written that she loves "stage magic" and Director Les Waters and Lighting Designer Alexander V. Nichols use it to further distort reality. Each scene changes with a brilliant flashbulb effect, the centuries go bouncing back and forth, the actors play multiple roles and even the walls drop in and out of focus -- much like a real camera attempting to fine tune reality. It all makes for a fascinating trip but one which requires an audience to concentrate.

Berkeley Rep commissioned "Strange Devices" and we are seeing the World Premiere. So it's a new show and still has some bumps. At this point, the production is what one notices, not the characters. Perhaps this is because the story's twists and multiple characters require the actors to be picture perfect. There is one wordy set piece featuring Lim and McKenzie where all the in-and-out-of-focus tricks in the book cannot disguise a scene that needs to be trimmed.

But these are niggles. "Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West" is a fascinating tale and a feast for the eyes. It's a play that will grow more haunting with time.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West" Three Stars. One star is for Mimi Lien's inventive scenic design, one is for Nichols's lighting coupled with Bray Poor's Sound Design (we loved it when the music came up as the drinks on the wall of the bar became distorted). The third star is for Danny Wolohan -- he was the one character who seemed to have the green light to go a little bit deeper. He may have had the most flaws of all, but he made us care about him.

"Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West"
Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through April 11

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