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Secrets and Lies in Caught - September 12, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Secrets and Lies in Caught

El Beh as Wang Min, Elissa Beth Stebbins as Joyce/Curator (Pak Han)

You get three plays for the price of one in Christopher Chen’s Caught. Each one is nested inside the one that precedes it. Ordinarily, these might be described as Acts I, II and III. In this case, they are stylistically so far apart it’s easier to consider them to be variations on a theme. Pinning down that theme, however, is another matter.

Caught begins by feigning an informal rapport between the man on stage — a Chinese artist named Lin Bo  (Jomar Tagatac) — and the audience. With the house lights on, the stage manager introduces him as the artist responsible for the installation in the theatre and on stage (the art was actually created by set designers). As Lin Bo stands at a podium, audience members fill two benches on either side of the stage. He begins to give a hybrid TED Talk/art lecture, with accompanying slides, that will explain why he was arrested in China, and details about his two years there in prison.

Like any good thriller, Caught depends on the element of surprise; or, its opposite, the audience’s ignorance. As in any program, you’ll see the list of actors and the names of the characters they’re playing. Because Chen repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, it’s hard at times to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief. Unless you were the man in the front row who believed in the play to such an extent that he responded out loud to the actors.

This felt like a cringeworthy faux pas at first but the actors rolled with it, as if expecting such a response. This man’s reaction notwithstanding it seems like a better way to approach the material is with the, perhaps obvious, understanding that the entire evening is fictional. The frequent direct addresses from the stage to the audience deliberately confuses and blurs that line. As the increasingly meta second “play” points out, a traditional theatre audience will struggle with a throughline to hold onto if that wall is broken. If it’s clear from the get-go that you’re about to be hoodwinked, it’ll be easier to handle all the zigzags.

Jomar Tagatac as Lin Bo, Elissa Beth Stebbins as Joyce/Curator (Pak Han)

This middle section of Caught comments on the first, and then slowly devolves into a postmodern graduate seminar in theory. Strangely, it starts to run an increasingly high emotional temperature. This is due to both of the commitment from actresses on stage, El Beh and Elissa Beth Stebbins. Their linguistic duel pits meanings against meaninglessness, and their miscommunications verge on becoming a tragic farce. When their scene ends, four of the actors return to the stage to pull apart the office from the first play, the one featuring Lin Bo’s story.

It feels cathartic to witness something so physical after the headiness of what’s come before. This deconstructed set also works symbolically. Everything we’ve watched up to this point, all the artifice, will be broken down too. Suddenly, we’re in a post-theatrical coda. The play has ended, a couple of the actors say goodnight and walk out of the theatre. But two of the actors remain onstage.

Jomar Tagatac and El Beh are now a couple sharing a room “backstage.” They’re undressing and dissecting the evening’s performance. Their conversation drifts and they reminisce about an old mutual friend. Lin Bo’s story is now being reflected back in the third play, one that finishes without the pretense of a set or costumes. But Chen writes Caught into a corner here.

Jomar and El’s friend is dead. At the denouement, the play that has eschewed realism and traditional plotting now asks for an emotional investment in a character who never makes an appearance. After all the clever stagecraft that has destabilized our expectations, the playwright ultimately wants something straightforward: our sympathy. But it isn’t that kind of play. Chen tries to piece order and meaning back together in the last fifteen minutes, but it’s too late. If you’ve blown up the idea of narrative, then end the play with a bang not a whimper.

Caught, through Sept. 25, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, 510-841-6500, shotgunplayers.org.