Saturday, September 10, 2016

When Worldviews Collide

If one were to seek out the weakest flaw in America's media, it would probably be our society's glaring lack of interest in the truth. As the United States careens toward Election Day in a drunken media stupor, the political landscape has been devoured by pathological liars, slick spin doctors, and a horde of braying ignoramuses convinced that Donald Trump is a winning combination of an alchemist who can transform shit into gold, the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and the White Savior of a doomed nation.

What we're really witnessing is the malignant version of a popular mythology in which people with overinflated egos plant a seed of self-interest, fall in love with the sound of their own voice, lose touch with the reality that exists outside of their fragile bubble of narcissism, and succumb to the cruel (and often self-defeating) game of trying to live up to their own publicity.

Sometimes, it's not a narcissist, but an extremely insecure person hoping to connect with someone online. Whether inflating one's professional résumé to get a job or catfishing a stranger to get a date, the amorality of such tactics is mind-boggling. I doubt Sir Walter Scott could ever have imagined how accurately the words he penned for an epic poem published in 1808 could remain so pertinent more than 200 years later:

"Oh what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive!"

Personal greed, dysfunctional behavior, and unrelenting dishonesty will always have an impact on the lives of people with less money and/or power to determine their personal incomes and outcomes. When these factors collide at the intersection of two radically different cultures, personal desire can make some truths surprisingly malleable -- until learned behavior kicks back into gear. You say you hold certain truths to be self-evident? Perhaps you shouldn't be so sure of yourself.

When an argument erupts in one of Sholem Aleichem's tales of shtetl life, a friend asks Tevye: "He's right? And he's right? How can they both be right?" The dairyman's response is exquisite in its simplicity.  "You know something? You're also right!"

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Seen during the 2016 Frameline Film Festival, Ray Yeung's new film, Front Cover, sets up an interesting culture clash. Set in New York City, it follows the exploits of a Chinese-American photostylist working for a fashion magazine. At 21, one of his main goals is to get assigned to work on the photo shoot for the magazine's front cover. When the magazine lands a popular Chinese movie star from Beijing as the subject for its front cover, Ryan (Jake Choi) gets the assignment he has long coveted. There's just one problem. Qi Xiao Ning (James Chen) is a male prima donna hiding a big secret.

Qi Xiao Ning (James Chen) is a Chinese fashion model who
has arrived in New York for a photo shoot in Front Cover

What should have been a fairly easy job for Ryan turns into a major hassle (made increasingly hostile by the clash between an overtly homophobic native-born Chinese man and an openly gay, American-born Chinese man). Ning, who keeps referencing his girlfriend back home, wants to be portrayed as a very masculine man representing the "new China" while Ryan aims to plan the shoot from a Westernized fashion standpoint. Although neither man trusts (or seems to like) the other, Ryan's boss, Francesca (Sonia Villani), pushes him to stifle his feelings and get the job done because the assignment means big money for the magazine.

Whenever Ryan tries to break through Ning's frosty veneer, Ning hides behind his entourage of pretty women. The model is rude, dismissive, and insufferable to work with until Ryan suggests they spend some time together in order to get to know each other on a one-to-one basis. Although it may be difficult for Ning to understand how Ryan can feel so relaxed at a gay bar, after he ends up spending the night at Ryan's apartment it becomes obvious that Ning knows what to do with another man in bed.

Qi Xiao Ning (James Chen) and Ryan Fu (Jake Choi)
share a kiss in a gay bar in a scene from Front Cover

The next morning, Ning is shocked when Ryan's parents use their key to enter their son's apartment, showing no remorse or shame about the fact that Ryan is gay. Instead, Ryan's mother is delighted that her workaholic son may have found a new friend. "He only date white man, never Chinese man!" she says, insisting that Ning join the family as they travel to Staten Island to help Ryan's grandmother celebrate her birthday.

Things seem to improve as Ning adjusts to seeing Ryan in a family situation, especially with parents who accept him as he is. Although Ryan's parents speak Cantonese and Ning's primary language is Putonghua (a Mandarin dialect), they are able to communicate well enough in English. Unfortunately, a picture taken by Ryan's parents of the two young men is quickly cropped and uploaded to a Chinese tabloid, which puts it on the magazine's cover, thereby launching a news cycle which threatens to out China's teen heartthrob to his adoring fans.

Qi Xiao Ning (James Chen) and Ryan Fu (Jake Choi) attend a garden
party in honor of Ryan's grandmother in a scene from Front Cover

The cropped photograph of Qi Xiao Ning (James Chen) and Ryan Fu
(Jake Choi) that is uploaded to a Chinese tabloid in Front Cover

Although Ning and Ryan had talked about the kind of life they could live if Ryan left his job in New York and came to work for Ning in Beijing, this sudden turn of events threatens Ning's career as well as his relationship with his family. His phantom "fiancée" is quickly flown to New York to stand beside Ning at a press conference announcing their upcoming wedding. Although Ryan is deeply hurt by Ning's hasty retreat back into the closet, he is forced to put on a good face during the press conference.

Ryan and Ning's final moments together are angry and sad; frosty, yet understanding. Both leads are photogenic and quite appealing, with Jennifer Neala Page appearing as Ryan's close friend and comic foil, Jennifer. Sonia Villani is appropriately insensitive as Ryan's boss, while the two actors portraying his parents nearly steal the film.

Poster art for Front Cover

Front Cover could hardly be classified as a gay rom-com. Instead, writer/director Ray Yeung has done an excellent job of framing the cultural values which haunt his two leads, ranging from perceptions of Asian masculinity to their responsibilities in family relationships, whether to hide one's sexuality or live an openly gay lifestyle, and what it means to be a Gaysian male in today's new China as opposed to New York. It's a fascinating mix of cultural contrasts and conceits that makes for a refreshing film. Here's the trailer:

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Imagine someone receiving a set of Russian matryoshka dolls (the popular toy in which figurines of different sizes fit inside each other). As they open each doll and discover another one waiting inside, there's an initial moment of giddy delight. Then, the mechanics of the design start to distract the recipient from their sense of childish joy.

A series of matryoshka dolls (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What if, instead of a simple wooden toy, each successive doll turned out to be a different version of what one assumed to be the truth? A truth which may have been hidden from recognition by cultural blindness. Or a truth that might have a completely different meaning to someone else.

What if the shifting truths became so unnerving that they undermined the cultural orientation by which that person had been raised and had come to believe everything they thought was "true"? They might feel as if they were trapped in a funhouse's confusing maze of mirrors. Or they might be attending a performance of Christopher Chen's provocative new play, Caught. Billed as a co-production with the Xiong Gallery, the promotional blurb on the gallery's website reads as follows:
"An art/theater hybrid piece by Xiong Gallery artists in collaboration with playwright Christopher Chen. An exploration into the nature of authenticity, Caught blurs lines between mediums by taking the form of a theatrical production situated within a real theater organization's season. Partnering with organizations across multiple cities, each showing of Caught is considered an installation work instigated by a different Xiong Gallery artist."
In other words:
"A pop-up art gallery installation created by Lin Bo and Xiong Gallery artists, Made in China is an exploration of perception and identity in the Chinese/American encounter. The exhibit looks at the ways in which globalized consumerism complicates the cultural exchange between East and West, playing its own role in human rights abuses as well as laying the ground work for a new Orientation. We give space and safe haven to artists of Asian descent unable unwilling undesiring of conventional channels. We promote produce present projects that cannot be shown in museums and that infiltrate any and all mediums for broadcast purposes. We defy disrupt dislodge the idea of gallery. You will know our exhibitions when you are in them."
Poster art for Caught

Chen's play, which has been staged in cities ranging from Seattle, Philadelphia, and Chicago to New York, London, and Berkeley does a masterful job of seducing audiences with a combination of art and artifice before pulling the floor out from beneath them, leaving theatergoers to question what they witnessed (as well as their own long-held beliefs). For some strange reason, it reminded me of a cross between the famous advertising campaign starring Ella Fitzgerald ("Is It Real or Is It Memorex?") and the nightmare sequence in 1962's political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, in which a group of American prisoners of war who have been hypnotized by their Chinese captors are made to believe that they are guests at a lecture about hydrangeas.

As the audience enters the Ashby Stage (where the Shotgun Players is presenting the Bay area premiere of Chen's play), they pass through a gallery of visual and cinematic art. Some installations hang on a wall or rest within an alcove. Numerous screens show projections of a repeating film loop entitled "I Am Not Myself" in which Lin Bo (Jomar Tagatac) undresses from wearing a Chinese policeman's uniform and proceeds to apply white makeup and a wig as he transforms himself into a blonde bombshell like Marilyn Monroe. The film then follows the process in reverse, as the actor removes his wig and makeup, and once again gets dressed as a policeman.

The action then segues into a lecture in which dissident Chinese artist Lin Bo (also portrayed by Tagatac) describes how, during a visit to Beijing's famed 798 Art Zone, he came to realize that the art works on display were actually a form of government propaganda. Inspired by the concept, Lin Bo created a logo which he used to spread the idea of an imaginary political protest designed to mark the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.

Jomar Tagatac as dissident Chinese artist Lin Bo in a scene from
Christopher Chen's new play, Caught (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Because his art was merely an idea that went viral, it was, at best, ephemeral. No mass protest could have taken place as a result of his art for one simple reason: No address was given where people should congregate. That didn't stop the police from arresting Lin Bo and imprisoning for his association with another dissident artist, Yew Rong (whose name is a handy-dandy homophone for "You Wrong").

The scene soon shifts to the offices of The New Yorker magazine, where Lin Bo has been asked to attend a meeting with Joyce Anderson (Elissa Stebbins), the journalist who wrote a feature story about him, and her editor, Bob Levy (Mick Mize), who keeps insisting that although he is physically present in the room, he's not really "there." Both are seriously freaked out about charges raised by a Stanford professor that Lin Bo's vivid description of his imprisonment is a total fabrication which could shatter the magazine's journalistic integrity and ruin Joyce's career. Played as an increasingly desperate farce, this segment does a fine job of mocking such issues of white privilege, cultural appropriation, artistic "enhancement" in order to make a story more commercially appealing, and the desperation measures to which some artists and business people will go in order to reach their goals.

Bob Levy (Mike Mize) and Lin Bo (Jomar Tagatac) find themselves
caught in a web of lies in a scene from Caught (Photo by: Pak Han) 

As the set breaks apart, the scene shifts to a nightmarish interview where Elissa Stebbins (the actress portraying Joyce) is being grilled by Wang Min (El Beh), a Chinese-American artist whose double-edged questions and answers completely throw Stebbins off her guard. In the final scene, Wang Min and Lin Bo are seen relaxing after the performance, challenging each other over who was really Yew Rong's lover for the five years each claims to have lived with the elusive artist. What facts did Wang Min and Lin Bo concoct in order to feed their own fantasies? Who's living in an alternate reality? Or as Abbott and Costello might ask:  "Who's on first?"

Wang Min (El Beh) and Lin Bo (Jomar Tagatac) try to decide who
really had a five-year affair with an elusive dissident Chinese artist
in a scene from Christopher Chen's Caught (Photo by: Pak Han) 

Chen was inspired to write Caught after witnessing the 2012 brouhaha that erupted after monologist Mike Daisey was interviewed by Ira Glass on the popular public radio program, This American Life, about his show entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. In what some assumed would be a catastrophic blunder for Daisey, he was forced to admit that some of the incidents described as factual in his monologue had, instead, been fictional. The fallout from the interview led to a heated debate over why a theatre artist might substitute fiction for fact and why a true journalist cannot.

For those in the Bay area who have been following Chen's career as a playwright, Caught is undoubtedly an artistic breakthrough. Although I've found some of his previous plays difficult to grasp, there was never any doubt about his creativity as a fantasist. This new play demonstrates what can happen when a gifted writer lures an audience into a game of three or four-dimensional chess through his craft in spinning a web of contradictions. As Chen notes: "The play is a snapshot of the digging process. It is a play of provocations rather than answers. It is about digging beneath the dominant and sometimes subtle cultural narratives that uphold an encompassing yet specific version of Truth."

Wang Min (El Beh) interviews actress Elissa Stebbins in a
scene from Christopher Chen's Caught (Photo by: Pak Han)

Working on Nina Ball's puzzle-like unit set (with projections designed by Wesley Cabral), Shotgun's cast does a bang-up job of toeing the line between drama and farce, leaving the audience to question what is fact and what is fiction. It's a delicious challenge for director Susannah Martin, who explains that:
"The play is a mash-up of styles, genres, and containers. It successfully investigates questions of race, cultural identity, privilege, and the ethics and integrity (or lack thereof) in art making, while inhabiting the space of a mystery. It is a highly theatrical and inventive puzzle to be cracked by the audience. In a time where identity is malleable, yet parsed and examined by the public on a daily basis in every form of media imaginable, Caught is a timely and important political thriller."
The cast of Caught (Photo by: Pak Han)

It's hard to describe how refreshing it is to experience a play as baffling, biting, comical, and challenging as Caught. Chen's meticulously complex and magnificently layered writing offers any theatre company a script which, in performance, can be shaded and accented like a musical score. Ray Oppenheimer's lighting design and the fine work of the production's sound designer, Matt Stines, further enhance the experience.

Performances of Caught continue through October 2 (and in repertory from November 26 to December 17) at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

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