36 Views, by Naomi Iizuki at the Lantern Theater Company, is a smart play about smart people, and a particularly smart woman. We’ve seen several this year — the Lantern’s Photograph 51, about a smart woman unlocking the DNA molecule, and Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at the Wilma, about a smart woman and academic competition. Iizuki gives us another scholar, this time in the world of Asian art and artifacts.
Dr. Setsuko Hearn (Joanna Liao), whose title is immediately discounted, is an expert on the Heian Era (A.D. 794-1192). When she learns of a newly discovered pillow book, a book of women’s poetry and lists, she immediately wants to write about it. But access to the book comes through Darius Wheeler (Joe Guzman), a shady dealer who may or may not be sympathetic to her ambitions.
Is the book real? Is Wheeler real? Those are the questions behind the machinations on stage. In fact is anything real? What is art and what is a forgery? Can we trust the people we think we know, or are they part of the deception?
While Hearn and Wheeler negotiate their relationship, artist and art restorer Clare Tsong (Bi Jean Ngo) and Wheeler’s Assistant, John Bell (David Pica) construct their own deceptions, and a writer of sorts — or is she? — Elizabeth Newman Orr (Angela Smith) threatens to reveal everyone’s fictions and forgeries.
The title of the play is taken from Katsushika Hokusai’s series of woodblock prints, titled 36 Views of Mt Fuji, which depict scenes incorporating the mountain in the background. The 36 scenes of the play, reveal, little by little, who people really are and what they really want, and yet we are always wondering if there is another layer underneath.
Is it real or is it projection?
Production designer Jorge Cousineau’s Shoji screen backdrop, on which art and scenery are projected, intersperses modern scenes with ancient art. Kabuki elements are present throughout, as in the opening in which Liao wears a red kimono that is stripped away to reveal a modern woman, and Ngo strips away her restorer’s costume to reveal the artist beneath. Scenes are introduced with the shocking sound of wooden clappers that tell us we are about to see something new.
The finest art depicted is that which we do not see. Wheeler’s gallery is filled with objects we can only imagine. What we do see is always a question — is it real or a forgery, and the answer for us is always a forgery, because we are always aware that we are watching a play, which in itself is a forgery of life.
There was a moment, on opening night, where art and real life inadvertently collided. At the end of the first act (almost), a pause in the action went on so long, the audience started to leave their seats, but then the actors reappeared and went on about their business as if the stage wasn’t crowded with these interlopers. Art, or intentional deceit? Hard to tell, since everything seen until then had been revealed as something other than what we thought.
High heels and artifice
The play itself, while intriguing, never quite catches fire. DeLaurier’s direction creates a stiffness that reminds us the actors are acting. Guzman is irascible as the conman dealer who might be better than he seems, and David Pica’s Bell seems as smart as his character.
Liao, as Dr. Hearn, has a superficiality that belies her passion for her subject, while Angela Smith lacks the subtext that might make her character threatening. Is there something about playing smart women that is challenging? A recent article mentioned that Sheryl Sandberg wears stilettos while Mark Zuckerberg is okay in his gray t-shirt. Perhaps our role models for smart women are a bit skewed.
Overall, this is a play that stays a bit too much on the surface, but it asks questions that are worth pursuing even after the play is over.