Real and fake are intertwined in timely play about artistic license and the truth | Theater Review by Joanne Rhim Lee (Summer 2019 issue)
Caught ~ By Christopher Chen, directed by Rick Shiomi
Full Circle Theater, presented by The Guthrie Theater ~ May 17 – June 2, 2019
These days, one can barely open the newspaper or listen to the radio without hearing the phrase “Fake News.” Unfortunately, we are no longer able to take it for granted that the news we consume is an accurate version of events. Students who do research on the internet cannot assume that a website or article is a valid source, as anyone can pretend to be an authority on any subject.
It is exhausting work, so walking into a theater for an hour or two of entertainment is a welcome distraction, a mental break from having to navigate fact from fiction. Or is it?
Playwright Christopher Chen wrestles with these issues in Caught, presented at the Guthrie Theater by Full Circle Theater. At the beginning of the play, audience members are directed to wander through an art exhibition on stage of Chinese artist Lin Bo’s contemporary graphic posters. These works are reminiscent of both Barack Obama’s famously stylized Hope campaign portraits and Mao Tse-tung’s shining propaganda posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Lin Bo’s works use bold primary colors and images, such as rays of sunlight and clenched fists. Several gallery docents mingle with guests for the first few minutes of the show, offering insightful commentaries on the works.
After about 10-15 minutes of mingling, an announcer tells everyone to please take their seats, and Lin Bo himself comes to the podium and shares a brief monologue about his grueling experiences in a Chinese prison a few years earlier. He is both an artist and a political activist, and his unique form of protest led to his imprisonment and torture. Describing the meager rations of food and the rats that infested his prison cell, he is an inspiring speaker, eliciting both sympathy and outrage. His personal story brings a renewed meaning to the artworks behind him, as well as a collective desire to fight injustice in China and throughout the world.
After this talk, we are introduced to Joyce, a young reporter who has just published her first piece in The New Yorker, an interview with Lin Bo about his experiences in the Chinese prison. Joyce is ecstatic at the enthusiastic reception of her piece, and also flattered by the attention from Lin Bo. However, her curmudgeonly editor Bob is less impressed, and has a litany of questions for both of them. Where exactly was Lin Bo imprisoned? For how long? What kind of soup was he served —- potato or cabbage? How large were the rats that he saw?
At first, Lin Bo and Joyce are flummoxed by Bob’s questions. Why does it matter what kind of soup he was served, or where the rats were found? Bob eventually reveals that he has information from a very reliable source who visited the same prison, and who claims that the details in Lin Bo’s descriptions are not just innaccurate, but way off.
By now Lin Bo is sweating, claiming that perhaps his torture led him to confuse certain details of his experience. Joyce, wanting to retain her journalistic integrity, wants desperately to believe him, but Bob will not back down, shouting accusation after accusation like a prosecuting attorney.
Finally, Lin Bo breaks down and admits that he made up the story. He claims that he wanted to bring attention to the imprisonment and torture of political activists in China, and hoped that his art and accompanying story would elicit worldwide support for his cause. Joyce is devastated that her nascent career might be ruined by this new information, but the story gets worse. Not only is Lin Bo not a Chinese dissident, but he has never been to China.
As the audience tries to grasp what has unfolded, another Chinese artist named Wang Min is introduced, who discusses her work with Susan Miller, the curator of the exhibit. Susan is clearly an admirer of Wang Min’s work and tries to articulate the meaning and vision behind it. But Wang Min won’t have her work be pigeon-holed and continues to challenge Susan’s interpretation of it.
In the last scene, the two actors who play Wang Min and Lin Bo put aside their characters and speak as fellow actors, debriefing their work in the previous scenes. As they relax and share a meal together, they discover shocking overlaps in their personal lives, including the fact that they shared a lover for many years. We want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Caught is a very challenging work, requiring the audience to concentrate hard on what is real and what is fake. Who are the actors here? Is this a fictional play or an ad-libbed conversation between artists? Is there a script? This nervous tension is clearly the work of the excellent Christopher Chen.
Credit also goes to the small but stellar cast for keeping us on the edge of our seats. Brian Kim seamlessly changes accents and mannerisms, completely believable in several roles. Erika Kuhn expresses genuine vulnerability as Joyce the reporter, and Edwin Strout exhibits just the right amount of pompous righteousness as Bob, her editor. As Wang Min, Kathryn Fumie (played previous weeks by Katie Bradley) is hilarious as she goes off the rails, challenging Susan (a flabbergasted Shana Eisenberg) to the debate about the relativity of truth. Perhaps we can all relate to arguing with someone who may be several levels smarter than we are, or maybe just insane.
Under the direction of the excellent Rick Shiomi, Caught is a fun ride, a welcome intellectual exercise as we ponder questions of truth in our world.