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Much of Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views concerns life on the periphery of the fine art world, so it feels natural to set it in what looks like the interior of a gallery. In Allison Arkell Stockman’s new production for Constellation Theatre, the set’s rice-paper screens ceaselessly project “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” the 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s series of landscape paintings. Rest assured that the hyper-intelligent characters, art experts all, will explain their significance.
Hokusai’s pieces offer a contextual framework for the modern dramatics of art dealers and appreciators, as told in 36 segments that blend into one another. Yet Stockman’s busy staging suffers from the direct visual comparison to Hokusai’s measured and patient style: Panels slide every few minutes as the six players dodge between each other’s brief spurts of emotion, punctuated by a wood clapper and a Shakuhachi flute that feel like nervous tics. You may find yourself wishing the actors would scooch to the other side of the stage, so they don’t block Hokusai’s work.
The play opens with shady art dealer Darius Wheeler (Jim Jorgensen, elegantly slimy) relating a tale of hunting for prized items in opium-saturated backwoods Asia. Wheeler, whose love for Japanese collections is surpassed only by his love of collecting women, takes pride in his ability to sniff out a fake piece from a mile away, not to mention being able to fool enemies and business partners alike. At first, a beautiful woman, Sue Jin Song, personifies his ethnocentric narrative by exotifying herself, slowly shedding layers of traditional Japanese robes, becoming an extension of the play’s gallery of Orientalism through the ages. The robes give way to modern garb: Song is now skeptical academic Setsuko, chiding Wheeler for his stereotyping even as the two fall in lust while standing in his tearoom-styled private quarters. The clothing’s layers echo the play’s; there is fake on top of real on top of fake.
These opening moments, which allow Jorgensen and Song to journey into great expressive hinterlands, are effective, as are the brief spurts of kabuki-lite theater that follow. An early monologue, a web of escalating lies delivered by Ashley Ivey as Wheeler’s fidgety assistant John, earns the biggest laughs of the show, owing to Ivey’s ability to mask panic within steely professionalism. Another standout is Tuyet Thi Pham, nicely acerbic as a frustrated restoration artist—like Song, she proves a deft master of transformation.
The meat of the story, in which characters react to the introduction of a fraudulent but very convincing ancient manuscript, holds less appeal. For a play that expressly tries to create a multitude of perspectives, 36 Views too often retreats to the same one.
It’s also fitting that a play about falsehood has a buyer-beware element of its own. Though 36 Views is billed as an “erotic” work, there’s little eroticism to be found, unless one finds intellectual dressing-downs as titillating as the physical kind. Better to view the production as a Hokusai primer with occasional bursts of cocktail chatter. —Andrew Lapin