Closing the 50th anniversary season at the PCPA in Santa Maria, “36 Views” is a contemporary play about truth, love, revenge and betrayal against a backdrop of ancient Japanese art.
Written by Naomi Iizuka in 1999, the play had its New York premiere in March 2002 at the Joseph Pap Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. The play’s structure and title is inspired by “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” from 19th century Japanese artist Kaatsushika Hokusai. His series of woodblock prints portray the famous mountain from 36 different perspectives. In similar fashion, Iizuka’s play is artfully broken into 36 scenes that allow the story to unfold from various viewpoints.
Beautifully directed by Risa Brainin, the drama runs through Sept. 28 in the Severson Theater.
The story is about a manipulative art dealer, Darius Wheeler (Andrew Philpot). He is a suave, ladies man, (Indiana Jones meets George Clooney) daring to risk his life to procure precious artifacts and artwork from unknown places in the world. He meets Setsuko Hearn (Jully Lee), an East Asian literature professor, and together they become enthralled by the arrival of an ancient Japanese manuscript or “pillow book.”
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As Wheeler and Hearn struggle with what is “real” in their relationship, both their careers are in the process of being destroyed by Wheeler’s under-achieving assistant, John Bell (George Walker) and daring Claire Tsong (Leah Anderson), a restorer of Asian artifacts. Both have teamed up to forge the pillow book in an act of revenge. Added to the situation is a mystery woman (Karin Hendricks) who has a questionable business proposition for Wheeler.
Rounding out the cast of characters is the eternal optimist Owen Matthiassen (Peter S. Hadres) who recruited Hearn and is chair of the local university’s East Asian Studies Department. All the actors fully embody their characters and give a skillful and emotional performance.
Imagery is a powerful force in the play. In a beginning scene, Hearn sheds layers of robes in a dream-like sequence, symbolizing the many levels of truth and deception in our lives. Also, images of Japanese art are projected on a large screen behind the actors which adds depth and beauty to the production. Adam Flemming serves as projection designer.
Each production element is integral to telling the story from the minimal set design (DeAnne Kennedy), lighting (Michael Klaers) and sound (Andrew Mark Wilhelm) to the music (Elisabeth Rebel), costumes (Robin Newell) and staging (Suzanne Tyler). Scene changes are cleverly handled by silent and swift Ninja-style actors dressed in black.
Raising questions about authenticity in the world of art and love, this multi-layered, well-constructed and thought-provoking play explores the concept of what is true and what is real. On the surface, the characters are challenged by the perceived value and legitimacy of art objects. On a deeper level, they struggle with the truth about their own relationships and question the validity of their place in the world.
The smaller, more intimate Severson Theater at the PCPA is a perfect setting for the play. The story appears to ebb and flow before you with perfect timing, like a slow moving river of emotion and mystery.
This play carries on that age-old question — Does life imitate art or does art imitate life? “36 Views” provides us with a unique and clever viewpoint. Maybe it is both.