Early in "Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West," a most intriguing new play from Naomi Iizuka, an American woman visiting Yokohama in 1884 is told of the Japanese practice of tattooing the skin with pictures that seem like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But when one makes love and bodies intertwine just so, the images combine with that of one's lover, forming one complete picture.
This notion excites the tightly wound Victorian woman — Isabel Hewlett, played by Rebecca Spence in director Lisa Portes' crisp, tight, TimeLine Theatre production — just as the eroticism of the Far East always has sent a shiver down the spine of fetish-happy Westerners. But her informant in this instance is a less-than-reliable storyteller.
He's a Caucasian photographer — Adolfo Farsari, played by Michael McKeogh — who makes his living dressing up Western women in Kimonos, simultaneously annoyed at their inane objectification of a culture they know next to nothing about and interested in funding his own multicultural sexual desires.
The legitimacy of these desires — indeed, the notion of what is legitimate when it comes to the long-sexualized relationship between East and West — is one of the central topics of this play, a piece with a postmodern sensibility that argues authenticity is merely a construction dependent on the lens of one's individual camera. Even in the Victorian era, Iizuka's work observes, those much-desired photographs of Old Japan (wandering monks, geishas, rickshaw drivers and the like), were being staged and faked in the studio.
Iizuka certainly is not the first writer to probe the themes of erotic attraction and sexual exploitation between East and West. At times, "Concerning Strange Devices" puts one in mind of David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," a play that argues that the West always feminizes and objectifies the East, an act in which the East has been historically complicit for reasons of it own. Iizuka's work, which switches from its initial setting to present-day Tokyo, where the costumes and language have changed but not the raw urges, is structured not unlike Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," where present-day descendants try to unlock the actions and desires of their strikingly similar ancestors. You also get a whiff or two of Sarah Ruhl, a writer interested in Victorian sexual curiosity.
That's not to say that "Concerning Strange Devices" is derivative. Despite a few late-in-the-play monologues that sometimes interrupt the build of tension even as they explicate the themes, this play falls much closer to a traditionally plotted drama that most of Iizuka's plays, which have generally had freer structures. In spots, this one comes close to being dependent on the overly academic language of the campus, a deconstructive danger omnipresent when a playwright works on one, especially a playwright as potentially unstinting as Iizuka, (who teaches at the University of California, San Diego). At times here, one craves the center of Iizuka's juicy orange, as fascinating as it may be to keep peeling back the layers. This is really a smart, intense piece of writing: I had brief fantasies of some old-school commercial producer grabbing it and insisting that it be more visceral.
But this play already has moments of rich, and clearly personal, revelation, skewering mercilessly the collisions of racial identity and sexual desire. It might seem harmless to say something like "mixed-race people are always so much more attractive," but not if you hear it every day. And what does that mean anyway? Is it so different from "Japanese is not the language of poetry, it is the language of rice merchants," which Craig Spidle's boorish Victorian merchant observes in Act 1 (one of those racist generalizations that has not, this play shows, ever really gone away)? If you listen to the monologue spoken by Kroydell Galima, who plays one of those young men who can turn on and off whatever cultural identity fits their needs, you come to see that the whole notion of poetic language is laden with agendas.
One of the great assets of Portes' production — aside from some astounding video work from Mike Tutaj on Brian Sidney Bembridge's set, creating a cool series of holographic effects — is that this director, who well knows her way around Iizuka's work, captures the high stakes of all these interactions.
The TimeLine production is a little less sure of itself in the requisite erotic dimensions; its sexuality feels rushed and awkward in spots, perhaps a consequence of a lack of actor comfort in such a small space. But there is also a fabulous central performance here from McKeogh who deftly captures two self-loathing characters (he also plays a boozy, cynical, modern-day art historian). In one terrific scene with Tiffany Villarin, playing a modern Japanese woman among her many roles, McKeogh's eyes seem to go dead with desire in a way that makes you feel you can see inside the sockets and discern some kind of primal desire lurking in that genial persona.
It's quite a moment. More like that and this show would really sock you in the gut.
When: Through April 14
Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32-$42 at 773-281-8463 or timelinetheatre.com