Who knew art history could be so riveting, dangerous, and fun? Constellation Theatre Company tackles Naomi Iizuka’s mind-bending play 36 Views in a kaleidoscopic journey through ancient Asian culture and black market intrigue that must be seen to be believed.
The play opens on a meticulously detailed Asian garden, featuring lacquered hardwood, smooth rocks, paper sliding doors, and eerie moonlight. Scenic and Lighting Designer A.J. Guban has spared no detail in setting the stage for Iizuka’s sensual mystery. Guban’s meticulously crafted atmosphere sets the mood for the cryptic opening monologue of secretive art dealer Darius Wheeler, played by the assured Jim Jorgensen. Wheeler spins tales of traversing Asian villages and navigating dodgy border crossings in search of priceless artifacts, all punctuated by mystical lighting and projections.
Soon Wheeler’s daydream is invaded by a woman clad in a striking Kabuki costume, including a snow-white mask and rainbow layers of silk. As Wheeler continues his hazy speech, the mystery figure slowly peels back her layers and reveals herself as modern Asian scholar Setsuko Hearn, played by Sue Jin Song. Wheeler’s vision suddenly evaporates, and the play shifts back to reality as he meets a business-casual Hearn walking through his parlor. This blending of dreams and reality continues throughout the play, bridging the gap between the present and the ancient history explored in Wheeler’s paintings and Hearn’s manuscripts.
Jorgensen and Song bring a crackling chemistry to the central couple of Wheeler and Hearn. Song cuts through the art dealer’s calculating shell with sarcastic barbs and a shared passion for Asian antiquities. In turn, Jorgensen shows his versatility by revealing a surprising soft side beneath his flinty exterior. It’s impossible not to root for the rakish Jorgensen, even as the unsavory details of his past and present slowly come into focus.
Actors Ashely Ivey and Tuyet Thi Pham forge their own pivotal alliance as Darius’ under-appreciated assistant and spunky restoration specialist. Together they provide a dark mirror of the bond between Wheeler and Hearn – one based on deceit, greed, and revenge rather than love. Ivey’s turn as fidgety, erudite John Bell is filled with entertaining quirks and hopelessly esoteric historical references.
Meanwhile, Pham adds some much needed edginess as cynical artist Claire Tsong. She counterbalances all the high-minded artistic chatter with her practical “art is just money in canvas form” sentiment.
Closes November 24, 2013
Constellation Theatre Company
1835 14th Street, NW
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $45
Thursdays thru Sundays
As the roiling intrigue around a mysterious manuscript slowly comes to a head, intricate woodblock design projections dramatically alter the mood. The dreamy spectacle of ancient passages acted out in a modern setting replays over and over again, each time with a different backdrop of striking hues and delicate brushstrokes. Iizuka’s labyrinthine script poses a heady challenge, but director Allison Arkell Stockman has wrung moving poetry and accessible action from the laundry list of arcane, art world lingo.
All the pieces of 36 Views work in concert to form a visionary journey through the dark side of the art world. Polished performances and relatable themes of authenticity, trust, and respect for tradition provide a clear path through Iizuka’s academic jargon for playgoers without a B.A. in Japanese history. This bold experiment in visual storytelling will expand your horizons and, perhaps, cause you to reexamine those “worthless” paintings stashed in a dusty corner of your attic.
36 Views by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman . Featuring Sue Jin Song, Jim Jorgensen, Ashley Ivey, Tuyet Thi Pham, Megan Dominy, and David S. Paglin . Set Design, Lighting Design: A.J. Guban . Costumes: Kendrai Rai . Projections: Aaron Fisher . Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan . Props: Kasey Hendricks (Props Designer), Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Gnerlich . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers.