Story: As you enter, it appears that The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has joined with the Xiong Collective to present an art show titled Devil in a Blue Dress, created by an artist named Lin Bo. The “hybrid theatre/art installation presentation’s” program notes by Mark Winston of Washington University in St. Louis refer to him as a “Chinese conceptual artist most often associated with the so-called ‘confrontation’ movement.”
A docent helps guide you through the showing, explaining its various elements. St. Louis is the latest city to host an example of Lin Bo’s work, following his release from prison in China because of his piece titled Rally. After immigrating to the United States in 2014 his work has been displayed in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and now St. Louis.
He himself later discusses his work, recounting the terrible suffering he endured while in prison. That’s just the beginning of the story, however. Lin Bo later meets with his editors at The New Yorker, who have a few questions to ask him following their publication of his harrowing story.
Allusions are made to Mike Daisey, a performance artist who caused a sensation with his story titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, about workers who toiled in sub-par conditions to make Apple products. Problem was, Daisey later admitted his tale wasn’t completely true, causing considerable embarrassment for NPR and its show, This American Life.
And what about a writer named Wang Min? Has she influenced the intrepid Lin Bo? How does she fit into this increasingly complex tale, a subject of controversy where truth, fact and fiction blur at a dizzying pace?
Highlights: The Rep brings down the curtain on its 2017-18 Studio Theatre season with this arresting, sometimes exhilarating, frequently clever albeit often annoying puzzle piece by playwright Christopher Chen.
Other Info: A big clue to this philosophical whodunit is that patrons are not given the production program (as opposed to the art exhibit notes) until they exit the venue at its conclusion. That’s when one can read some especially noteworthy comments by director Seth Gordon.
While it wouldn’t be fair to say too much about Caught, it can be noted that its subject, more or less, is “America’s relationship to truth,” as one of its characters proclaims. Although Chen is clever, his take on the malleability of truth in this era of so-called “fake news” doesn’t rival that of the Japanese classic, Rashomon, a play it brings to mind, which truly requires rumination.
Chen’s writing is at times whimsical and delightful, such as his reference to a revered figure named Yu Wong. At other times, it comes across as pretentious claptrap. The phrase, “It is not a matter of,” e.g., is beaten to death with a sledgehammer subtlety that wears thin long before it concludes.
Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, in coordination with projection designer Kylee Loera and installation artist Albert Yowshein Kuo, offers an attractive and intriguing set on which the performers of Caught can converse against an unusual backdrop. Portable pieces of the set are moved quickly between the one-act play’s myriad scenes to present effective looks for an art gallery, an office and a break room.
Gordon elicits fine performances from his quartet of players, who go ‘all in’ on Chen’s frequently confusing dialogue. Cast members studiously present characters grappling with their conceptions of truth which are shaped by their own failings and baggage. It’s a convoluted process and director Gordon seems up to the challenge of making this funky frolic work for his audience.
Kenneth Lee adeptly conveys the character of Lin Bo (and himself) as at times charming, defensive, outrageous, poignant and silly, not at all easy given the circumstances. Rachel Lin’s character Wang Min arrives later in the 90-minute work but quickly takes center stage in Lin’s crisp, calculated and studied interpretation. Like some of her colleagues, she also portrays herself at times.
Rachel Fenton deftly handles the roles of New Yorker editor Joyce as a woman who is simultaneously exhilarated with her first major publishing coup and wary about its possible fallout. She’s also quite good in a Q&A session that sends Caught down another of its endless rabbit holes.
Jeffrey Cummings fills out the quartet as Joyce’s somewhat smarmy boss, happy to share in glory but eager to pass blame at less joyful news.
Ann Wrightson’s lighting shrewdly underscores key scenes and moments in Chen’s twisting tale, while Felia Davenport’s costumes complement the characters. Rusty Wandall's sound design underscores the presentation with an ominous score which additional clues to Chen's perplexing piece.
People far more sophisticated and intelligent than I doubtless will find Caught a captivating and intriguing intellectual exercise. As The X Files’ Agent Mulder has said for a quarter of a century now, “The truth is out there.” But how the heck can you find it?
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 25
Tickets: $45-$69.50; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak