Do you know who Lin Bo is? . . . Does he even exist? Does it matter?
“Caught” purports to be a presentation by Chinese artist Lin Bo who endured years in a horrible Chinese prison for a single dissident work. The “importance” of the experience is enhanced by the pop-up gallery on the walls of the theater showcasing the works of other Chinese artists, with each item tagged with a convincing bio and info card, including the looping Bill Viola-like video of the artist himself transforming from soldier to drag queen. Do you know who Lin Bo is? Neither did I, but I felt as though I should have. Does he even exist? Does it matter?
“Caught” is structured like nesting Chinese boxes where one story spawns the next one, seemingly unrelated but definitely linked. This play by Christopher Chen explores the slippery boundaries between truth, fiction, and appropriation, which is somewhere in the middle. It’s a poke at the smug righteousness of certain people who cling to the idea that facts are more important than story.
Chen was inspired by Mike Daisey’s story on NPR’s radio show “This American Life” in which he describes the horrible conditions of workers in the Chinese factory that manufactures iPhones for privileged people around the world. When this story was later proven to be not completely true, the show’s host Ira Glass was upset, as anyone would who was duped by a slick con artist.
We move from the “original” story of wrongful, dismal incarceration in a Chinese prison as told by the artist Lin Bo himself, speaking in careful, inflected English as he captivates the audience. Later, Bo is again interrogated in a New Yorker magazine office, this time by a zealous and overly cautious writer and her editor who challenge the veracity of his claims (was he fed watery cabbage soup in prison, or potato?) to prevent the shame of publishing lies. What happens when the pressure gets too great is a fun surprise, leading to a tedious and long scene, not unlike those overheard in Berkeley coffee shops, where two women (writers?) argue in circles about the nature of art and reality and the so-called “rules” that define each. Finally, we see how ambiguity of truth and ruse can be flip sides of the same coin as we witness a couple in an intimate relationship banter back and forth about their experiences and feelings around the story of Lin Bo.
Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that the actors, especially Jomar Tagatee who brought Lin Bo to life, are fine and convincing collaborators in the scheme of the play. The staging, set, light and sound design are innovative, especially the stark and confining New Yorker magazine office that captured the intractability of the writer and editor.
“Caught” is a philosophical and self-indulgent shaggy dog story about the ongoing interplay of artistic creation, factual reality, and artistic appropriation, all presented in a clever and professional package. If you catch on to the ruse and still have the patience to wait for the story to unfold, you might enjoy it. Or, like the boy who called out that the emperor has no clothes and like this reviwer, you might be irked by the con.
“Caught” continues at Shotgun Players through December 17, 2016. For further information click here.
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“CAUGHT” by Christopher Chen. Director: Susannah Martin. Set Design: Nina Ball. Lighting Design: Ray Oppenheimer. Sound Design: Matt Stines. Costume Design: Christine Crook.
El Beh, Mick Mize, Elissa Stebbins, Jomar Tagatec