“Caught” messes with your head in the most exquisite of ways. In part a send-up of the art scene – the conceptual artist as con artist — it is itself a form of conceptual art, and a series of cons. But the author of the Play Company production that is at the Downstairs Theater of La Mama through September 24 is not just an entertaining trickster. The show is in places very funny, but it also has some thought-provoking things to say about truth and lies and perception….about the pitfalls of cultural exchange….and other things.
It’s probably best, frankly, to see “Caught” the way I did, without knowing much about it. All I knew was that it involves a Chinese dissident artist, and that there were surprises. In this way, I suppose “Caught” undermines the critical art – which is apt, because it undermines much else, including itself.
Below the photographs from the show is a brief description of it, trying to keep spoilers to a minimum.
“Caught” begins as an art installation, “Lin Bo: Jail Seeking Prisoners.” Lin Bo, we are told, is a Chinese dissident artist who spent two years in prison in China and, now settled in New York, re-created his jail cell and rented it out on Airbnb for a dollar a day; 42 New Yorkers responded, and the art exhibition on the walls in the vestibule leading into the La MaMa theater is essentially a group of photographs and a couple of static videos of the guests in the re-created jail cell.
Once the audience is seated in the theater, Lin Bo, standing in front of the jail cell that was presumably used in his “Jail Seeking Prisoners,” gives a lecture tied to a book that is about to be published about his art and his experiences. It includes a slide show of the art scene in Beijing, which is fascinating in its own right. Then he explains what landed him in prison – his creation of an “imaginary” protest hooked to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, simply a poster that called for a rally on the anniversary, but gave no location for it. The conditions he describes of his imprisonment are grim. At the end of Lin Bo’s talk, we applaud.
And the scene changes, to an office in the New Yorker Magazine, where Joyce the author of a recent article about Lin Bo, and Joyce’s editor Bob, engage Lin Bo in amiable publishing chit-chat – until they gingerly bring up what turns out to be the real reason for the meeting: They have received an e-mail from a prominent academic authority on Chinese prisons who questions a number of details in Lin Bo’s account.
Without going into details, I’ll say that this second scene, which undermines the first, takes a swerve into the unexpected, then ends with bows and applause. A third scene follows, a discussion between the curator and the Chinese artist Wang Min, with whom Play Company collaborated in “the extraordinary hybrid theater art installation piece you just experienced.” It is here that some of the main themes of the show are explored, bringing in the cases of Mike Daisey and James Frey, who were publicly dressed down amid accusations of fabrications in their works. It too undermines the scene before it, takes a swerve into the unexpected, and ends with bows and applause. By the end of the fourth scene, which also swerves into the unexpected, the audience is unsure of everything, including whether to applaud.
All this might sound frustrating, but it’s actually fun to experience, helped along by the credible acting and fine work in a small space by the design team.
The program is not distributed until after the show is over. If you’re planning to see “Caught,” maybe you should wait to read the credits.
The Play Company at the Downstairs Theater of La MaMa
Written by Christopher Chen
Directed by Lee Sunday Evans
Set by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume sby Junghyun Georgia Lee, lights by Barbara Samuels, sound and music by Jeremy S. bloom, art installation concept by Miao Jiaxin, production stage manager Megan Schwarz Dickert.
Cast: Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray, Murphy Guyer, Jennifer Lim.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $35 to $55
Caught is scheduled to run through September 24. It looks to be sold out for the rest of its run, so they’ll either have to extended it (again), or transfer to a bigger theater.