A photograph may speak volumes to some of us, but to playwright Naomi Iizuka, its meaning is always negotiable. To put it another way, every photograph is beholden to whatever narrative we foist upon it. That’s the idea that animates Iizuka’s new play, Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West. Mixing semiotics of photography with post-colonial theory, the play uses a tightly woven skein of images to talk about East-West relationships and the whole vast mythology that informs them. It’s heavy-handed at points, with character monologues that sound like essays and a lot of direct references to “Otherness” (the title derives from an instruction manual for a daguerreotype camera that arrived in Japan during the Meiji era). The politics are familiar, but the story is unpredictable.
In this case, Eastern and Western cultures regard each other with mutual suspicion. Isabel and Edmund Hewlett (played by Kate Eastwood Norris and Danny Wolohan, respectively) travel to Yokohama some time in the late-19th century, only to discover that they’re more aroused by the Japanese than by each other. Isabel runs off with a rickshaw driver; Edmund with a prostitute. Fellow ex-pat Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie) sets up a photography business through which he contrives tourist images of oyster harvesters, blind monks, and geishas. Such things will later become the province of Dmitri Mendelssohn (McKenzie), an art history professor who specializes in Meiji-era memorabilia. The line between myth and reality becomes perilously thin.
Iizuka has an interesting approach in that she likes to formulate a thesis and develop it. Her concept here is something along the lines of “photography as a representation of Orientalist thought.” Isabel is drawn to Yokohama partly by familial obligation and partly by a seductive photograph of a half-naked man with tattoos. Edmund, who made his fortune selling guns to the Japanese, fell in love with a sex worker who evidently conformed to his fantasies. She’s a recurring tableau in the play, always sitting in front of a mirror, combing her long black hair, waiting for the snap of a camera. Farsari traffics in nostalgia, posing people in bygone-era costumes and hawking the portraits. He takes pictures of white women donning kimonos and Japanese fans. Each photograph becomes a fake historical document, showing archetypes that don’t exist anymore, except in people’s minds.
Rather than burden her audience with connecting the dots, Iizuka uses Professor Mendelssohn as a pedagogical filter. As filters go, he’s perfect: wordy and erudite, with a tendency to over-explain things. He imparts a lot of historical context at a critical moment in the play, while delivering a lecture on Meiji-era photography. That’s a clever bit of dramaturgy that some will interpret as a copout — it stalls the action, after all, and makes Strange Devices seem more pedantic than dramatic. Yet it also reveals something important about the professor’s character. Mendelssohn proclaims himself an expert in Orientalist myth, but he’s also a myth-maker in his own right.
Strange Devices rests on multiple layers of irony. Mendelssohn lectures on revisionist history — a practice in which he also participates. Manhattanite art dealers (and expert forgers) Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim) and Hiro (Johnny Wu) seem equally culpable. They’ve found a way to merchandize her ancestry and reap the benefits.
Most of the actors do double duty in Strange Devices, presumably to establish parallels between 19th-century Orientalism and 21st-century cultural tourism. In fact, the whole play seems circular. Characters repeat each other’s lines; a little girl (presumably Hewlett’s daughter) gallops across a video screen in the background; Hewlett’s mistress keeps reappearing as an apparition in front of her mirror.
In terms of composition, Strange Devices is imaginative and rigorously crafted. Mimi Lien’s stark, black, geometric set could either be a photo frame or the inside of a camera. Leah Gelp’s video projections show pastoral mountains, modern cityscapes with cars moving at high speed, actors posed in sepia-toned daguerreotypes, and bodies fitting together like puzzle pieces. Camera metaphors abound: In one scene, Mendelssohn spies on Kiku and Hiro through a window that looks like a small peephole. Other scenes end with the flash of lights and the click of a shutter. Another image is frozen in time, and with it, another myth consecrated.