As it draws to a close, the Studio season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis introduces audiences to the work of Obie-winning California playwright Christopher Chen, with its production of “Caught.”
See? The puzzles start right there, in the title.
“Caught” by the Chinese police for producing dissident artwork? “Caught” in a lie? “Caught” in some kind of trap? It could be the trap of cultural preconceptions, or perhaps by the myriad traps of self-deception.
Every one of those possibilities seems both correct and mistaken in this short, cerebral, witty piece. Different moments in the play contradict one another, and that’s fine too. Like Chen, director Seth Gordon seems pleased to present us with four short scenes and an art exhibit, rife with contradictions.
Put them all together and you might as well forget Keats’ maxim: In this theater, truth and beauty are far from identical. You’re wise to take a step backward, but that’s not hard. “Caught” doesn’t intend to embrace you. It keeps you at arm’s length.
When we enter the theater, we’re invited to examine a small exhibit of modern art in different styles by dissident Chinese artist Lin Bao. Confused? The “docents” will help you out. Then Lin Bao (Kenneth Lee) presents a lecture on his work; that’s Scene 1.
Next, he is summoned to the office of the New Yorker (deliciously depicted by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan), the magazine famed for its fact-checking, to clear up some things for a writer (Rachel Fenton) and her editor (Jeffrey Cummings). It does not go well.
In the following scene, Fenton steps “out of character” to become another one. Yes, she’s a performer, but she’s also a curator who works in both visual and performing arts; in that capacity, she will engage in dialogue with a “real Chinese artist” (Rachel Lin).
This artist calls out Fenton for her failure, or perhaps her inability, to understand Chinese culture. Finally two actors (Lee and Lin, who of course are actors but not the ones that they are playing) have a private, post-performance conversation in front of us, the now-apparently absent audience.
A lot of their conversation centers on an unseen character called U Rong, which pretty much sums up the action.
Plays that call attention to their theatricality — and their related lack of reliability — have been important from “The Threepenny Opera” to “Chicago.” Those questions, which are often associated with avant-garde work, may be of more interest to people really involved in theater than to the casual audience.
But thanks to Gordon’s light touch and the four fine actors, “Caught” never feels sober or self-serious. Besides, it’s not just about the theater arts.
Throughout “Caught,” Chen and Gordon remind us that artists aren’t the only ones who are unreliable. So are members of the audience. Our responses to art depend as much on what we bring to the occasion as on what is set before us.
That begs another question: How much can we trust ourselves? But Chen and Gordon don’t answer that one, either.