When you walk into the lobby of the Bathhouse Theater to see playwright Christopher Chen's Caught, which is something you're going to want to do, you'll see art curated by Xiong Gallery lining the walls. The gallery, so Seattle Public Theater says, is a group that claims to "promote produce present projects that cannot be shown in museums" by artists "of asian descent unable unwilling undesiring of conventional channels."
Prints on soft paper show immigration documents plastered with portraits of kids, in what seems to me to be an effort to show the faces behind the names, the humans caught up in what can be a dehumanizing process. Fuzzy oil paintings of Mao blinded by a grid of roses dominate the room. Sculpted clumps of industrial detritus were installed in the theater space itself. The pieces work together to create a critique of unfair immigration policies, authoritarian leaders, and industrial waste.
The lobby lights flicker a few times and the audience members shuffle to their seats. The artist, Lin Bo (Kevin Lin), approaches the stage, thanks everyone for coming, introduces himself, mentions a New Yorker article that was recently written about him, jokingly says it made him feel like "the artist of all Chinese suffering," and then tells his story about being imprisoned in China for 3 years for organizing a fake protest that never happened.
The parallels between Lin Bo's and Ai Weiwei's aesthetics and paths to international recognition are apparent enough to raise suspicions about what's real in this performance and what's not.
I started wondering if the art lining the lobby walls was real, if the person standing before me was Lin Bo or an actor playing Lin Bo or an actor playing Lin Bo playing an actor who was actually Lin Bo. Just as these questions began to swirl in my head, the action onstage drops the audience into the offices of the New Yorker, where the writer who wrote the article on Bo, Joyce (Rebecca Olson), and the editor, Bob (Daniel Wood), begin to question the veracity of Bo's narrative.
From there, the show takes off, exploring several hard-to-talk-about issues involving cultural appropriation, the Truth, and the intersection between art and politics.
The play is about Western responses to Chinese dissident art. Sort of. It's also about relative pain. It's also about how the truth is a collaborative fiction, and about how nobody can really know anyone else. Importantly, it's about an hour and a half long, tops. (TAKE HEED, Seattle theater producers.) And it's kind of hard to write about because its chief joy is structural, relying primarily on the element of surprise, and I liked the show enough that I don't want to ruin any surprises for you here.
But I am also wary of unsupported and overly generalized praise, and so I'm going to try to thread that needle between descriptive synopses that engages with the play at the level of its own ideas and just digitally clapping my hands and saying, "Yes, good for you, cast and crew of Caught, good job at doing your job," for you right here.
After Lin Bo's introduction, the play goes full-blown meta-theatrical, but in a meaningful way; less of a self-flagellating/self-congratulatory annoying Ouroboros kinda thing and more of a flower blooming out of another flower kinda thing.
Chen balances his heady subject matter and structure with plenty of humor, including, surprisingly, a lot of absurd, slapstick gags. Daniel Wood, in particular, delivers a terrific bit of physical comedy when his character flies into a Yosemite Sam-like rage after winning an argument. It's the first time in the play when you really begin to suspect that something deeply weird is going on, and it also reminds you that it's nice to watch somebody bust up a stage.
And while we're talking about the quality of the performances, it's no surprise that Keiko Green, who plays artist Wang Min, is able to glide between different personas, pulling out the more nuanced bits of humor in her lines and playing the pathos without sap. She seems absolutely at home onstage, which is an important quality to project in a play that risks snootiness.
There's a lot to admire in the character work and in the language of Chen's play, but the way he's able to excavate cultural appropriation—a topic that elicits rage and dismissive eye-rolls from both ends of the political correctness spectrum—for belly laughs and earnest inquiry is particularly laudable. He ends up presenting a pretty cynical argument about the limitations of cultural exchange, which is a bummer, but it makes for an entertaining and thoughtful show.
And two of the plays I'm thinking of are solo shows, so, really, Caught is one of TWO of the best play-plays I've seen this year. Go see it.