Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West Review-Stylistic Patchwork

Naomi Iizuka's play Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, which made its Chicago debut on January 24 at the Time Line Theatre, is above all, a study in deception. Iizuka was inspired to write the play based on the burgeoning practice of photography in Japan in the 1880's, and she created a three-part drama, with a setting that shuffles between Japan in the 1880's and today, in which several characters (with actors assuming multiple roles over the different eras) all engage in acts of deception or are revealed to be deceivingly more than they would appear at first glimpse. This motif of deception is designed to draw inspiration from the fact that photographs themselves can be extremely deceptive. One thing we learn from the play is that photographs from Japan which were sold as souvenirs in the late nineteenth century that allegedly depicted life in Japan, in which one could see samurai, geisha, rickshaw drivers, and the like, were in fact a kind of forgery. The world which they depicted was one that was not representative of then-contemporary Japan, but, in fact, a depiction of an already bygone era, with locals dressing up in what amounted to theatrical costumes; the “exotic” photos were merely giving the people what it wanted, a souvenir of a distant, barbaric land.

Rebecca Spence as Isabel Hewitt, Michael McKeough as Adolfo Fasari, and Kroydell Galima as A Tatooed Man in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

Rebecca Spence and Michael McKeough in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

It is from this assumption that Iizuka proceeds in her drama, which is a rather mysterious affair. The opening scene of the play depicts the fascination with the exotic photos which leads the wife of an American businessman (Rebecca Spence) in 1884 to the shop of a Yokohama-based photographer named Farsari (Michael McKeough), an American, based on an actual historical person. I found Farsari's didactic, condescending tone towards the tourist, as well as her husband (Craig Spidle), so off-putting that I found myself sympathizing with the ugly Americans, who, to Iizuka's credit, turned out to be far more complex than Farsari reduced them to, yet it seemed that Iizuka wanted us to adapt Farsari's point of view nonetheless. In the play's second part, which is considerably stronger, we move forward to contemporary Tokyo as a badly jet-lagged American professor of art in Japan to buy   Meiji-era photographs (McKeough, again) chats up his Japanese translator (Tiffany Villarin) in a manner that suggests a mixture of flirtatiousness, drunkenness, and serious sleep deprivation. This was the finest scene in the play, one which seemed so real I felt extraordinary discomfort at McKeough's behavior, even averting my eyes when he embarrassingly spilled a drink on the translator, Kiku. However, the play's second part gives each of the characters, the tourist, the translator, and the photo dealer (Kroydell Galima), a monologue in which they reveal far more about themselves than their interactions with each other would indicate.

Michael McKeough as Dimitri Mendelssohn and Tiffany Villarin as Kiku in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

I found Iizuka's techniques to be quite original, and there's no shortage of things going on in the play. There's secret interracial romance, overly forward lines of inquiry, male prostitution, blackmail, and con games, interspersed with lectures on tiny cameras, the human eye's “blind spot”, and the deceptiveness of Meiji-era photography, all of which manage to get combined into a fairly satisfactory mixture. However, the content of the monologues themselves seemed a bit ridiculous, seemingly patched together of cliches designed to make the characters' inner thoughts seem “edgy.” If I have failed to convey how the different aspects of this play work, it is because it is not in the vein of an ordinary, narrative work, but rather a complex, multi-layered examination of the nature of truth that, if real-life interaction fails to provide, then a photograph, whatever its virtues, could not possibly hope to provide. It is nothing if not original, and the jumbling of narrative techniques makes for a unique experience.

Tiffany Villarin in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

Craig Spidle as Edmund Hewitt in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

As the Victorian-era American tourist, Rebecca Spence was trying too hard to make every gesture, every inflection of her voice mean something. Her performance combined hysteria and defensiveness, and even when she was given a chance to loosen up near the end of the play, she still didn't seem relaxed. As Fasari, Michael McKeough was too arrogant to allow any kind of identification with his character, even when he tells the American woman a delicate secret about himself. McKeough's performance as the jet-lagged tourist was a vast improvement, however, and the revelations he made about himself during his second-act monologue made his actions during the scene even more clear and effective. The air of self-satisfaction that characterized Kroydell Galima's monologue was quite fun, but the cast's most effective member was Craig Spidle in the role of Edmund Hewitt, the American businessman (Spidle also turns up in a small part in the contemporary segment near the end), who gave his seemingly insensitive businessman (and husband to the oversensitive woman) a more contoured dimension than written.

Rebecca Spence in Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

Naomi Iizuka's Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West is currently playing at the TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W Wellington Ave, Chicago, from now until April 14.

Photos:  Courtesy of TimeLine Theatre Company

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