Review “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West”

RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theater Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through April 14
Tickets: $32-$42
Phone: 773-281-8463 ext. 6

The exoticism and eroticism of the Far East as seen through the lens of the West, and the boorish misbehavior of Westerners who have no real understanding of the East are two tropes at the center of Naomi Iizuka’s “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West,” which is enjoying a captivating, if somewhat confusing, production directed by Lisa Portes at TimeLine Theatre Company.

The device in question is the camera, and Iizuka snaps an album’s worth of visual and verbal images about everything from the eye’s blind spot to the ways in which manipulated photos distort perceptions of reality. She arranges the intermission-less 90-minute piece into a triptych, with the first part set in Yokohama in the past, the second in Tokyo in the present, and the third in the United States and Tokyo in the past and present.

The first part focuses on Isabel Hewlett (the lovely, enigmatic Rebecca Spence), a Victorian woman in Yokohama with her businessman husband, Edmund Hewlett (Craig Spidle). Seeking something she can’t quite explain, she’s drawn to the studio of Adolfo Farsari (the terrific Michael McKeogh), an historical photographer who made his living taking photos of Meiji-era geishas, tattooed men, and the like for Western tourists. Here he’s an irritable homosexual contemptuous of his clients who upbraids her for ignorance and voyeurism, among other things, though she seems sincerely interested in learning about the culture and understanding her own impulses.

Part II, set in present-day Tokyo, begins with a drawn-out scene in a bar between Dmitri Mendelssohn (McKeogh), an embarrassingly drunk and unintentionally insulting art collector, and Kiku (Tiffany Villarin), the young Japanese woman he hopes will hook him up with Hiro (Kroydell Galima), who has a stash of coveted Meiji photographs to sell. Whether they’re “authentic” or not — and what that means — is just one of the questions that arises as part of an elaborate seduction, with Mendelssohn being taken in ways he partly realizes and richly deserves.

More-or-less bringing together the two threads, Part III provides further insight into Edmund Hewlett, the epitome of the “ugly American,” and describes Isabel’s disappearance into a strange new world. In truth, her story is the one that most intrigued me, and although Iizuka’s multifaceted thematic approach serves an intellectual purpose, the play might have been stronger and more comprehensible if she’d concentrated fully on this complicated woman.

TimeLine’s runway staging effectively combines scenic and lighting design by Brian Sidney Bembridge — the overhead forest of white Japanese lanterns at the theater’s entrance is especially evocative — with stunning projections by Mike Tutaj (though some of them are a little hard to see), sexy costumes by Janice Pytel, and original music and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. The acting is excellent all around, but McKeogh does an especially fine job of creating two very different characters.

All in all, “Concerning Strange Devices …” is worth seeing, though not entirely satisfying.