Review of Caught, Yale Cabaret
Playwright Christopher Chen’s Caught plays like a behind-the-scenes look at conceptual art, while at the same time positioning itself as an effort to “catch” the current political climate concerning race and art. In formulating that sentence I found myself cutting-off certain possible phrases, in the spirit of Wang Min, the artist played by Ashley Chang, who at one point launches into the rhetoric of calculated intellectual subterfuge: it’s not about “role” or “staging,” it’s not about “story,” and, yes, all stories are lies, or, if you like, possible versions of the truth. Why do we need a conceptual language of pre-digested terms? This isn’t Fox News.
What Caught does best is create what is often called “mise en abyme,” that tricky territory where an image mirrors itself, or a literary work reflects on its own composition, or, as here, scenes which seem to be “happening”—in some fictive version of our world—are actually happening in an actual version of the play we’re watching. Or, more properly, the play and the actors playing its characters are often playing with the level of reality we should engage with. The deliberate disorientation begins with turning—wonderfully successfully—the Cab space into an art gallery, complete with images that capture the alliance of art and commodity, commenting on art’s commercial, “productlike” existence, while also gesturing to one of the big topics of our time: China’s effect on the global economy and on the U.S. dominance of the latter. As such, the show is remarkably timely the very month that the yuan has joined the International Monetary Fund as a reserve currency.
What’s that have to do with art and theater? Deep in the “process” of this play, we might say, is concern about the artist’s relation to capitalist and media “appropriation,” as well as to the semiotic system that treats racial distinctions as the basis for identity tagging. Lin Bo, the artist/brand enacted by Eston Fung, begins what is billed as a “gallery talk” by talking about his incarceration at the hands of the Chinese authorities. He speaks to us—Americans—as an example of a dissident artist finding, in the land of social and artistic freedom, a kind of new age vindication. He’s instantly a hero, his art a provocation that lets us feel good about ourselves.
No sooner do we accept the horrors of his imprisonment and his gratifying release into an art world eager to receive his conceptual performance pieces that involve the internet in virtual protest gatherings that never take place, then an editor (Steven Lee Johnson) and a writer (Anna Crivelli) at The New Yorker, once disposed to coddle Lin Bo, begin to question his facts, à la, on This American Life, Mike Daisey’s apology for distorted facts in his theater monologue about working conditions at Apple. Armed with the kind of fact check so prevalent in our digital age—for evidence of verbal imagery or details lifted from other sources—the interrogation becomes even more brutal than the questioning Lin Bo told us he received in China. In other words, be a dissident artist all you want and question political reality, racial identity, and conceptual cliché, but don’t fuck with the facts. The scene between Fung, Johnson, and Crivelli is very well-played and structured, and, with the gallery talk, creates an amusing and wry commentary on “the discourse” surrounding the liberal championing of art.
But Chen’s play—directed with skilled pacing by Lynda Paul—doesn’t stop there. We next enter into a televised talk between an art critic played by Elizabeth Harnett and Wang Min (Ashley Chang). In their increasingly tense discussion, Wang Min, ostensibly the author of the play we just saw, attempts to disabuse her interlocutor of every dearly held expectation about what her art is trying to say and how it should be received. Lots of terms get tossed around in this very funny scene, but one thing Wang Min (and, behind her, Christopher Chen) never gets into is the reason for the focus on facts in the interrogation of Daisey and Lin Bo and other such artist provocateurs: our legal system is based on case histories, and every case has to maintain a strictly conceived regard for the facts, even if we don’t really believe it’s possible to ever “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” “Artistic license” is just a figure of speech; there is no authority capable of issuing or revoking such a license. Here and there, Min’s naivete becomes its own mise en abyme, a mirroring of the role media—and all art is a medium, theater as well—plays in trying to construct plausible versions of things that happened or might happen or could have happened. Mostly to see what it can get away with, in my view.
Eventually we get what might be called a reflection on “process” itself as the practitioners of conceptual art—or theater—might experience it, particularly when the creative partners played here by Fung and Chang were simultaneously—unbeknownst to both—lovers to the same master/mentor. The wryness of this segment opens up the slippery nature of not only emotional relationships, but also the vacillating commitment to one method or another that every artistic career undergoes. The point, for such, is to “capture” what’s happening when it’s happening.
Chen’s play catches its audience up in what is often called “the problematic” of art itself in its double jeopardy of being “tried” simultaneously in the not dissimilar but not identical courts of fact and fiction, or art and actuality. As a stimulating and entertaining treatment of the conflation, Caught, in this sharp enactment at the Yale Cabaret, catches its moment off-guard.
By Christopher Chen
Directed by Lynda Paul
Assistant Director: Francesca Fernandez McKenzie; Set Designer: Joo Kim; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth Antunano and Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Caroline Ortiz; Sound Designer: Fan Zhang; Projections Designer: Adam O’Brien; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson; Technical Directors: Harry Beauregard and Michael Hsu; Producer: Kathy Li
Cast: Ashley Chang, Anna Crivelli, Eston Fung, Elizabeth Harnett, Steven Lee Johnson
October 6-8, 2016