By Pat Launer
One of our best years of theater has come to an end
And a new year begins, with more shows to attend.
An auspicious start is this week’s good news:
Naomi Iizuka’s dazzling “36 Views.”
Naomi Iizuka made an early mark on San Diego . The gifted playwright did her MFA studies at UCSD in the early ‘90s, and we were treated to mind-boggling, eye-popping productions of “ Carthage ,” “Skin” and “Tattoo Girl.” Since she left town, Iizuka has become one of the most acclaimed and sought-after young playwrights in the country. She’s currently working on commissions for the Mark Taper Forum, the Goodman Theatre, the Guthrie and the California Shakespeare Festival, but she’s still as humble and gracious as ever. She doesn’t get down here that often. But now, you can go to her – and not too far away. Her 2001 play, “36 Views,” is getting a magnificent airing at the Laguna Playhouse, and if you care about theater, or remember Naomi, or want to see something really intriguing, you won’t want to miss it.
Iizuka’s early work was sometimes opaque or arcane. She’s matured into enigmatic. “36 Views” is endlessly mystifying and mysterious. Every time you think you’ve got a grasp on it, and you’ve wrapped your mind around what’s happened, the plot takes another turn, another nuance is revealed, like the many layers of the ancient, traditional kimono that are shed ceremonially at the end of the first act.
The play takes its name from the famous series of woodblock prints by the 19th century Japanese artist, Hokusai : “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” There are actually 46 pictures of the unknowable peak, which fits right in with Iizuka’s intricate dramatic setup, where nothing is absolutely certain.
Right off the bat, we’re told, by the wealthy, arrogant art dealer Darius that what he’s telling us is a “true story.” But we almost never can separate the genuine from the artifice, as each of the six characters greedily, angrily or covetously dupes, fools and deceives the others – in business, in art, in friendship or in love.
It all revolves around the appearance of a 1000 year-old “pillow-book,” an 11th century memoir of a Japanese courtesan of the Heaian era, beautifully, poetically written, revealing the woman’s private life and innermost, often erotic thoughts. If authentic, it could turn the art world on its ear, fetch an incalculable price, change long-held assumptions. As the discovery works its way through each of the characters, we come to see it as an enigma within a puzzle, a scam within a sting based on a ruse. Nothing is sure; there’s moral ambiguity in everyone – from artist to dealer, from journalist to academic to lover. By the end of the play, we feel a bit unnerved, discomfited, even a bit deceived; like the characters, we, too, misjudged and misapprehended. And we leave the theater questioning some of our own assumptions – about honesty, morality, verity, cross-cultural communication, antiquity, authenticity and the intellectual vs. emotional response to beauty or art.
The magnificent mesh of the form and content of the play and the design and style of the production is breathtaking. The characters are at times impenetrable; the performances are consistently provocative. Everything is stylized, and everything changes at the snap of the Kabuki clackers that mark the 36 short scenes, which can end mid-paragraph, and veer wildly from contemporary and realistic to ancient and inscrutable. The Japanese flute evocatively underscores the action. Masked men and women, dressed in full kimono regalia, periodically waft, like ancient apparitions, across the stage. The experience is hard to describe, just like viewing a striking piece of art (or an unknowable mountain). It’s the visceral response that matters. But still, you can be misled, and you begin to question your opinions and perceptions. So see it for yourself. And get lost in the intrigue of a glorious labyrinth of theater, art and life.
At Laguna Playhouse, through January 30.
DON’T FORGET MARK YOUR CALENDAR FOR…
… “Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” spectacular production, in English and American Sign Language, at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. , Jan. 11-23.
…The 20th annual Plays by Young Writers , brought to us by the Playwrights Project. January 13-23.
… The 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence … Catch the broadcast on KPBS-TV, Sunday, Jan. 16 at 3:30pm (channel 15, cable 11) and again on Saturday, January 29 at 11pm. If you can’t be there… see it on air!
… pick up a copy of “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego ” by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by me). Order it online at www.sunbeltbooks.com (free shipping!), or check it out it at a bookstore near you!
… Counter-Inauguration Day. A group called ORGANIC Collective is holding a “Reclaim the Streets Party” and is looking for “a massive theatrical convergence” of actors, artists and activists who will “remember the dead and fight for the living,” in protest of Administration policies. The gathering is at 6:30 pm on January 20, at 3rd and Broadway. The intent is to “reclaim a little piece of our city for the expression of our grief, our joy and our aspirations for justice and liberation.” If you’re interested in performing, contact email@example.com
LOST AND FOUND…
Two big losses in the past week… one for the theater, one for the country:
…Try to Remember the Razzle -Dazzle of Jerry Ohrbach , who was the original El Gallo in “The Fantasticks ” and Billy Flynn in “ Chicago .” He starred in “Carnival” and “ 42nd Street ,” and “Promises, Promises,” for which he won a Tony. On the night he died, the lights were dimmed on Broadway for one minute at curtain-time. He appeared in several high-profile movies and maybe some will forever link him with the world-weary, wisecracking Lennie Briscoe of “Law and Order,” a role he played for 12 seasons. But theater-folk will always remember his mellow voice and his high-energy hijinks onstage.
.. and Shirley Chisholm, the groundbreaking powerhouse, first black woman elected to Congress and first to try for the Presidency. Outspoken and unwavering in her quest for equal rights, she wanted to be remembered as someone who had guts. She did, and her indomitable spirit was an inspiration to us all.
I only hope that, wherever they are, he’s serenading her as she takes control and changes the status quo.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“36 Views” — a stunning piece of theater; beautifully written, gorgeously directed. At the Laguna Playhouse, through January 30.
” Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended AGAIN!! through January 16.
Have a Dramatic New Year – at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.