Americans can’t get China right in Christopher Chen’s Caught, now being produced by the Play Company at La Mama and directed cleanly by Lee Sunday Evans in a white downstairs studio. The author’s four loosely connected playlets are comic and subversive, cerebral exercises on the culture wars in the U.S., as well as in China. We are reminded of the lapses in judgment of Mike Daisey and James Frey—and their lashings in the media--as well as the enormous prices Chinese artists have had to pay regarding freedom of speech. The playwright’s technique is reminiscent of that in Dadaism, and one of his early impulses may have been to draw mustaches on capitalistic artists who, although working on socially relevant subjects, are, in reality, more interested in personal success (“tasting a peach to understand an apple”). Slyly, Chen plants tares in with his dramaturgical wheat, and these one acts become about rooting them out, as, ultimately, little jokes sprout into lies. The characters are intellectuals, wannabe artists, editors, and professors—people who seem more drawn to the dangerous art of packaging and interpreting. They are examining the infrastructure and cultural paradigms of a China critically misinterpreted in the West—and come up dumbfounded or physically ill: One of Chen’s strong abilities in these works is to destabilize an audience, finding intellectual soft spots and toying with illusion vs. reality. Nevertheless, whether Chen is just being playful or proud of his heritage or both, he appears to be saying that those from China have more cultural dimension, more understanding of life than Americans or even Chinese-Americans, portrayed here scarfing down fast food.
Caught seems truncated, however. The stories are too quickly resolved, and they clamor to be more fully fleshed out. Viewers may think they are watching sketches, intellectual vanishing acts—opportunities left unexplored or unexposed. How much more penetrating the pieces would be if the audience followed the course of an artist who does suffer the fate of one accused in China—or in the U.S.—and who does have to sustain the aftermath (what does that look, much less feel like?). Chen and Evans may be saying that we are already in jail: prisons made of our own paradigms—where we are unable to grasp a different cultural point of view. They could be right, too, especially now, in that America is preoccupied weighing globalism before the upcoming American presidential election and having just witnessed the British vote on Brexit.
Toward the end of Caught Chen has a moment where the audience is told about an artist who has wistfully remembered his days as a child: living in a Chinese village of “no lies”--where there was a moral center, and where things were what they were. Depending on how those thoughts are interpreted (1949 is a key date to consider, as that is the year when China officially claimed that it was Communist), theatregoers may decide that he was or was not becoming nostalgic for a socialist paradigm. Interpreting Caught in such terms, the open arms of American understanding may be emboldened--or, otherwise, turn as chilly as those of a Dadaist. As is symptomatic of this work, enticing confusion reigns.
Caught by Christopher Chen
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
With Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray, Murphy Guyer, Jennifer Lim
Visit La Mama at: http://lamama.org/
For those interested in stories of young Chinese lives today, listen to a reading of Wish Lanterns by Alec Ash on BBC Radio 4:
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