Shotgun Players’ production of local playwright Christopher Chen’s stimulating, creative and complex work, Caught, confounded and ultimately conquered the Ashby Stage audience in its opening night performance. The mesmerizing Caught concerns truth and lies in their infinite varieties, and the place of truth in art, journalism and relationships. Since 2014, Caught has been produced in Philadelphia, Chicago, London, Seattle and New York to glowing reviews.
Chen’s initial concept of Caught stems from the incident involving Mike Daisey, who had reported on NPR’s This American Life about his encounters at an Apple factory in China, based on his nonfiction theatrical monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After the program aired, subsequent fact-checking determined that some of Daisey’s experiences had been falsified. This American Life host Ira Glass gave an on-air apology and retraction.
The substance of Daisey’s reporting about conditions in the Apple factory was accurate and was verified, but Daisey’s re-telling of aspects of his visit to China was false. So, yes, he publicized the horrendous working conditions but, in doing so, he fabricated his own involvement in the report.
Our evening of Caught began with the audience partaking in a pop-up art gallery installation, Made in China, apparently created by Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo and the Xiong Gallery. The website for the gallery describes it as: “…an exploration into the nature of authenticity, “caught” blurs lines between mediums by taking the form of a theatrical production situated within a real theater organization’s season. partnering with organizations across multiple cities, each showing of “caught” is considered an installation work instigated by a different xiong gallery artist.”
As we entered the theater, the audience-attendees could have their hands stamped, with the Made in China logo, as if attending a gallery opening; there is art on display; the program is the exhibit guide; some on-stage seating was provided to gallery attendees/audience members. Then we witnessed a talk, accompanied with slides, by dissident artist Lin Bo (excellent Jomar Tagatac) about his work in China and his punishing prison detention after he tried to organize a mass imaginary protest to memorialize the Tiananmen Square massacre.
How could we not believe his sympathetic story? After all, the artist has been profiled by The New Yorker and is publishing a book. When we meet contrarian artist Wang Min (terrific El Beh) in her discussion with outstanding actor Elissa Stebbins, our ideas about journalistic and artistic truth are further confused and disordered. Rather than spoil the experience, suffice it to say, that as audience members, we had to sift through multiple scenes, vantage points, styles and ideas until we found, or thought that we had found, the truth … as we understand it.
Director Susannah Martin has been involved with Christopher Chen in the development of Caught since the play’s inception. Her intimacy with the project shows in her taut and agile direction. Caught succeeds on multiple levels, as it questions our willingness to believe ideas that mesh with our preconceived notions of art and race and asks us to examine the value of absolute journalistic truth. The real conundrum of the evening is how Christopher Chen’s inventive barrier-busting play can be presented in such an ingeniously entertaining fashion, even as it leaves so many paradoxical ideas rolling around in our heads. Caught is like a theatrical seismic event. It’s a fantastic addition to the Shotgun Players’ season.
Caught is playing nightly at the Ashby Stage through Oct. 6, and in repertory through January 2017. For information visit Shotgun Players online.