By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Intiman production of Christopher Chen’s “Caught” begins with the ushers urging you to take stock of the works on display, from Chinese artist Lin Bo. And Lin Bo’s installations sit at irregular intervals around the theater, in the midst of the seats.
An overflowing toilet ejecting a stream of shredded paper. A cow, adorned in American-flag colors, defecating piles of tiny cheeseburgers. A pitcher of water next to a bowl of pretzels. A glass-topped coffee table, American newspapers and magazines on one side, Chinese forms with long redacted passages on the other. A McDonald’s meal parked next to a bottle of Sriracha sauce. We’re invited to ponder what such works might mean, before we sit and the house lights go down.
Then Lin Bo himself takes the stage, explaining his life, his art, and his long stretch in a mainland China prison. He was sent to prison for organizing a protest, that really wasn’t a protest. He never told anyone where to assemble, or exactly what to protest. He just sent a message around telling people to gather, with a date and a time and a suggestion as to what they should protest. The Chinese government found that bad enough.
And organizing movements, or at least activities, through deliberately vague messages, has some history.
Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer would tell his department heads that he’d found an abandoned car on the streets of his city, but wouldn’t say where. His minions scrambled to impound every abandoned car on the streets.
Teacher and writer Ron Jones decided to teach his World History class how easily folks could get caught up in fascist movements. He created an organization called “The Third Wave,” taught his students fascist principles, and then gathered them in an auditorium for a crucial message from the group’s leader. There was no message, no leader, and everyone involved was all too willing to follow someone or something that seemed like a sure thing. We would have all made good Germans, said Jones, sadly, to his stunned assembly.
Lin Bo seeks, of course, to put a movement together, not to destroy one. But he uses expectation and the willingness of people to go with the flow, to suit his own ends.
And personal ends versus social ends, quickly become crucial. Because Lin Bo is not who he seems to be. He’s worked hard to construct his life and art as a story. But two other folks appear on stage. They start out kindly. But they keep pressing him. And pressing him. And eventually, he cracks.
It’s tough to talk about the through-line of “Caught” without spoilers. But Lin Bo’s unmasking is only the first climax of an evening full of ripped-off masks. Carefully-crafted disguises get snagged and shredded upon assumptions, on errors, and even on semantics, although the deft and fiery performances prevent the proceedings from getting too dry.
One warning, though: Pretzel flies. The actors, no matter their roles, poses, or moods, reach for the salty snacks.
And then they reach for the water, or offer water to others. Water, consumed and/or offered, becomes a metaphor for the purity, authenticity, that seems to keep getting lost. (Best not to ponder, then, impurities and additives in big-city water).
I found the ideas in “Caught” to be stimulating and challenging, although I could have done without some of the forced comedy, bolstered with an over-throbbing sound design. Director Desdemona Chiang and set designer Lex Marcos make innovative use of the 12th Avenue Arts space, although the constantly-rotating action must exhaust the cast (Justin Huertas, Jonelle Jordan, Bradford Farwell, and Narea Kang), who always have their backs to at least one section, and push to emote using their entire bodies.
Christopher Chen’s play drew inspiration from the monologist Mike Daisey, who got caught fabricating stories about his visits to an Apple factory in China, and had to apologize. But our struggles with truth, its nature, its quality, and even its usefulness, continue. A new documentary has folks once again wondering whether Michael Jackson was a pedophile. Actor Jussie Smollett stands accused of staging a racial attack on himself. Over in Reno, Nev., at least, we’ve got racists posting and telling the world that all hate crimes are hoaxes.
And outside of the staged circus of ideas, the real world of emotions and ideas goes on. At the police station down the street from the theater, a man gestures desperately inside, to be taken seriously. At least, I think he was. I couldn’t hear him through the glass. At the bus stop, two men trade cryptic insults and are shouting, deciding whether or not to attack each other. One wanders off. The other one says, “Not gonna go look for trouble.”
Those things would have happened whether or not I was there to see them. After an evening with “Caught,” though, I certainly saw them from new contexts.
“Caught” plays through March 30 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Avenue in Seattle, as a presentation of the Intiman Theatre. For prices, showtimes, and other information, visit intiman.org/caught.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.