Theatre Mirror Reviews - "36 Views"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Naomi Iizuka
directed by Evan Yionoulis

Darius Wheeler … V Craig Heidenreich
Setsuko Hearn … Christine Toy Johnson
John Bell … Brad Heberlee
Claire Tsong … Jane Cho
Elizabeth Newman-Orr … Heather Lea Anderson
Owen Matthiassen … MacIntyre Dixon
Kurogo … Jennifer Armour; Ariel Carson; Jared Craig

The Huntington production of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 VIEWS is one of the loveliest things you will see, this season: Adam Stockhausen has filled the Boston University Stage with sleek combinations of glass and wood backed by projections based on Hokusai’s woodblocks and Chris Parry’s mood-lighting makes everything look smart and sophisiticated including the play, itself: Darius Wheeler, an unscrupulous art dealer based in Japan, is astounded when his assistant John Bell presents him with a facsimile of a recently-discovered eleventh century courtesan’s journal. Setsuko Hearn, a professor of East Asian literature, also becomes interested in this “pillow book”; she and Wheeler have a brief affair en route to learning that this literary find is a hoax generated by Bell, who comes to regret his actions, and his friend Claire Tsong whose motive is revenge on Wheeler for cheating her out of some family heirlooms, years ago. Elizabeth, an equally ruthless journalist, exposes the hoax after the Wheeler-dealer has stung her in a black market business scheme (she also gets Claire in the bargain); Owen, a befuddled academic figure, rounds out the dramatis personae. On the night I attended, the audience seemed delighted with 36 VIEWS whereas I felt Ms. Iizuka’s play is neither as deep nor mysterious as it appears to be on the surface because, judging by this production, it is nothing but surface with Kabuki accents.

Whenever I attend a play with which I am not familiar, I prefer not read the program notes beforehand, choosing to wander on my own into the playwright’s world and to find my own way out, again. I was later surprised to read how innovative 36 VIEWS is meant to be with its blending East and West into both plot and mise-en-scène; however, thanks to Brecht’s alienation theories, decades of minimal set design, the cinema’s influence on plot structure and the theatre’s restless search for anything new and then milking it to death, 36 VIEWS is more familiar than groundbreaking --- when a stunning geisha shed layer upon layer of kimonos, I knew, I just knew she would finish in modern dress as the present-day Setsuko --- which she did; do I need to be told that this sort of costume change is “Hikinuki” when I’ve seen it often enough, elsewhere? Was I supposed to be aware of (and count?) the thirty-six individual scenes equaling the number of Hokusai’s views of Mt. Fuji when I really felt this was one more episodic film script posing as a stagework? Have today’s audiences grown so thick that they need the rapping of wooden clappers to alert them that a tense climax is approaching or that a scene has terminated? Must Claire bounce offstage like a fox, fingers curled in demonstration of “Kitsune Roppo”, when she has already proven herself to be one cunning little vixen? (When Claire undergoes a sudden costume change in Bell’s presence (“Bukkaeri”), the effect is striking but misplaced; she should save her metamorphosis for her final scene with Elizabeth.) I am not averse to cross-cultural blending: PACIFIC OVERTURES and THE LION KING are brilliant hybrids of foreign lands and Broadway showbiz but the difference is the two cannot be separated in these musicals whereas Ms. Iizuka’s play can easily be shorn of its Kabuki-isms. Ms. Iizuka has spent so much time decorating her play that she has forgotten about its architecture: Wheeler and Setsuko are two boneless Beautiful People always poised between culture and cocktails (Wheeler wears the ubiquitous turtleneck); Act One’s curtain rings down on the minor character Bell, panicking over his folly, and he is largely ignored by his creator, afterwards; Claire, a supporting role, walks off with the show in her talons. The play’s greatest flaw is that Ms. Iizuka doesn’t dwell at any length on the seductive pillow book itself, giving away its lie almost as soon as it appears --- Thomas Gibbons was wise to fabricate a good deal of literary illusion in his BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE in order to devastate with the book’s unintended falseness --- Mr. Gibbons shows; Ms. Iizuka only tells.

Still, a layered production could give 36 VIEWS some depth and mystery but the Huntington serves up yet another evening of predictable good taste (Safe Sex, here, means never taking off your boxer shorts). The Kabuki trappings might have worked had director Evan Yionoulis first warmed up the character interaction (i.e “Western”) and then cooled things down with the clappers, etc. (i.e. “Eastern); the effect would have been the aural equivalent of a close-up pulling back to a long shot. Instead, Mr. Yionoulis keeps everything refrigerated --- if he aims for icons, he ends up with stereotypes: V Craig Heidenreich’s Wheeler is a swinging bachelor with his hands always in his pockets; Christine Toy Johnson’s Setsuko is the Good Asian Woman to Jane Cho’s She-Devil; Brad Heberlee plays Bell so nervously that Wheeler, for all his supposed shrewdness, must be incredibly dim not to catch on to him sooner; MacIntyre Dixon’s Owen is one of Dickens’ fussy old pedants; and whenever Heather Lea Anderson’s Elizabeth strides on, you know the bitch means Trouble.

This is where I would close by saying why didn’t the Huntington place 36 VIEWS on its smaller stage at the BCA and save its barn for an AIDA or a NICHOLAS NICKLEBY; instead, I will mention another location --- I’ve never been to Tokyo but judging from what I’ve seen, media-wise, it resembles an over-populated hell on earth, shot through with neon; Mr. Yionoulis’s vision of Tokyo is one so vast and laid-back it’s positively Los Angeles; if I may allude to the legend carved into the theatre’s proscenium, what sort of Mirror is being held up to what sort of Nature?

"36 Views" (11 March - 10 April)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide