BWW Reviews: Constellation's 36 VIEWS Shimmers with Artistic Beauty

Constellation Theatre has mounted a breathtakingly beautiful production of Naomi Iizuka's labyrinthine play, 36 VIEWS. The play draws inspiration from legendary Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai's renowned series of woodblock prints, "36 Views of Mt. Fuji," created between 1826 and 1833. The narrative, like the 36 views, revolves around ever-shifting points of focus, leading the audience on a dizzying journey across centuries of Japanese history, art and culture. Simple this production is not, but oh what spectacular views along the way.

Steeped in layers and illusions, the action begins with actress Sue Jin Song draped in silken kimono after silken kimono (gracefully peeled off by the hooded Bunraku puppeteer). And for the next two hours the stage shimmers beneath a cascade of ethereal projections of Hokusai's works on pristinely moving rice-paper panels. Director Allison Arkell Stockman has gathered a first rate production team. Scenic and Lighting Designer A.J, Guban and Projection Designer Aaron Fisher create a gossamer dreamscape of brilliant color and imagery that should send us all scampering to the Smithsonian's Freer and Sacklar Galleries of Asian Art, with a side trip to the Textile Museum for dessert. This transparent visual feast is punctuated throughout by Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan's crisply timed percussive clinks and clangs. Indeed, the beats of the rhythm sticks seem to be a code of their own, signifying meaning with one clack or two or many in rapid succession. Costume Designer Kendra Rai too has ingeniously designed several women's garments that delightfully transition from contemporary dress to traditional kimonos, and the ceremonial presentations of these transitions deepens the production's sense of place.

The story, cloaked as it beneath the ethereal imagery, is both cryptic and circular, and one is advised to sit back and let the visuals wash over one's consciousness until the plot twists rise above the clouds.

The play opens at the galley show of a famously reclusive contemporary Japanese artist whose work blends traditional woodblock imagery with disturbing modern variations. The stealthy, unscrupulous Asian art dealer Darius Wheeler, who has mounted the show, flirts with a lovely young connoisseur of Japanese art, Setsuko Hearn, mixing self-deprecating banter in with his art speak in a facile effort to woo her. Played with a Jeff Goldblum-like still intensity by the tall, lean Jim Jorgensen, Darius seems to be a man perfectly in control of his sliver of the world. Setsuko, however, played with intellect and charm by Sue Jin Song, parries Darius' every advance, and their romantic plot quickly entwines with deeper dramas. Setsuko is a respected scholar of 11th century Japanese women's "pillow books," which were written, we learn, in an idiosyncratic variation of Japanese unreadable by the men of the day. There is real heat between Darius and Setsuko, but deception lies at the heart of Iizuka's play, especially in the capable hands of Constellation Director Stockman.

Into this quixotic mix, me meet Claire Tsong, a brilliant, driven artist and restoration expert who loathes Darius, though she restores artworks for him as an independent contractor. Tuyet Thi Pham fills Claire with a purposeful ruthlessness that anchors the play's layers of truth and illusion in a credible backstory of comeuppance. Claire's boyfriend and artistic partner, John Bell, played with authentic academic insecurity and boyish charm by Ashley Ivey, is a gifted linguist with a never-to-be-finished master's thesis. Despite his girlfriend's dismay, John embraces his job as Darius' assistant, and holds the older man in curiously high regard. Claire's contempt for Darius, we eventually learn, is for good reason, though John-the ostensible "jack of all trades and master of none"---relies on him for gainful employment and immersion in the world of Japapanese art and history that so fascinates the young linguist.

John, who is fluent in multiple modern and ancient languages, and the equally talented artist Claire figure prominently in the plot's twists of intrigue as an enigmatic manuscript emerges that promises to rock the scholarly world of Japanese antiquities.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Newman-Orr, a mysterious, secretive young woman-played with film noir, femme fatal sultriness by Megan Dominy---shows up and begins seductively poking around Darius' shady world. Joining the fray is Professor Owen Matthiassen, Setsuko's mentor and elder academic-a lowly "generalist" as his ilk are now called. David S. Paglin brings a disarming, rumpled gentility to the role. His support and admiration of his younger, highly specialized colleague appears genuine, a welcome respite from the self-serving ethos of the hour.

The story reaches full bloom in Act 2, and I found myself rooting for the underemployed John and Claire in the merciless world of precious-and not-so-precious---artifacts. Indeed, modern audiences, inured as we are by the betrayals of even our most revered personages, will find in Naomi Iizuka's 36 VIEWS a familiar landscape of bating and switching and switching and batting that makes the play's O'Henry ending a perfect fit for our postmodern world.

There is a precision and formalism to Director Stockman's production---with its ever-changing backdrop of pristine woodblock prints and syncopated percussive punctuation---that resonates most effectively with the stillness and controlled intensity of actors Jorgensen and Pham. And indeed it is fitting that the narratives of their characters pre-date the entanglements of the other characters with each other. Theirs is the slow-burning conflict that fuels the drama of 36 VIEWS. Despite the cryptic dimensions of the script's multiple story lines---which happliy become clearer in the second act---the beauty and grace of the production engages the imagination while the logic of the plot moves slowly forward.

Rounding out the production team were Properties Designer Kasey Hendricks, whose spare but essential props enhanced the elegance of the setting, and Fight Choreographer Tuyet Thi Pham who kept all physical contact smooth. Special applause to Production/Stage Manager Cheryl Ann Gnerlich and the running crew of 36 VIEWS for their flawless execution of a technically sophisticated production---every screen movement, every projection, set change or percussive sound flowed with split second timing, and the visual and auditory surround of the production immersed the audience in sensory delight.

Advisories: Mature Themes

Constellation Theatre, October 24 - November 24, 2013
Constellation Theatre Company at Source, 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission

For information or tickets, visit http://www.constellationtheatre.org/views.html or call 202-204-7741

Photographs by Stan Barouh.




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From This Author Elizabeth Bruce

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