Prolific scribe Naomi Iizuka’s latest, “Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West,” packs much food for thought into 95 intermission-less minutes: meditations on Japanese-U.S. culture clash, mutual attraction and stereotyping, the ambiguities of photography as art form and documentation, plus narrative mysteries spanning nearly 150 years. Like “36 Views,” a prior Iizuka premiere at Berkeley Rep, “Devices” folds commentary about Western acquisitiveness and exoticization of the “mysterious East” into complicated intrigue, albeit this time in less arch fashion. Expertly directed by Les Waters, this is a delicate yet piquant evening likely to do some traveling of its own.
Among the elements that hastened Japan’s modernization after its forced 1854 opening to Western trade was the imported art of photography. Not only did locals eventually embrace it (particularly once the royal family allowed their images disseminated), but so did foreigners eager for souvenir representations of the hitherto little-changing Nippon culture their presence was now eradicating.
Into this 19th-century world barges Mrs. Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris), arriving in a Yokohama red-light-district studio owned by fellow Yank Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie). Babbling nervously, she claims to have wandered here by accident. But it soon becomes clear that’s no more true than her feigned disinterest in the heavily tattooed, near-naked rickshaw driver (Johnny Wu) whose portrait is being taken.
Farsari — whose name is derived from a real-life expat lenser of the time — initially dismisses Mrs. Hewlett as just another “rich American lady, a well-intentioned do-gooder” interested only in superficially strange or tawdry aspects of Japanese culture. But the two begin to perceive one another as kindred souls drawn to a society that seems (at least in some ways) less hypocritical and repressed than their own.
When Mrs. Hewlett disappears, to the distress of her blustering industrialist husband (Danny Wolohan), who has no use for Japanese ways beyond the native mistress he’s squirreled away, the questions begin. Has his wife come to harm, fled homeward or somehow vanished into the sensuous netherworlds of body art and geishas that, in different ways, transfix both her and Farsari?
Iizuka intercuts these scenes with modern ones in which jet-lagged, drunken U.S. art historian Dmitri (McKenzie) behaves inappropriately toward Kiku (a very funny Teresa Avia Lim), his translator in a bid to purchase antique photographs from dealer Hiro (Wu).
Mixing salaciousness with academic pretension, Dmitri demonstrates an “exotic” objectification of the East grown more sophisticated but scarcely more enlightened than it was a century-plus earlier.
But that initial appearance deceives; Kiku and Hiro, too, have hidden agendas. Hereditary connections to the 19th-century characters further complicate narrative twists that climax drolly, if almost too trickily, in an elaborate triple-cross.
“Concerning Strange Devices” isn’t a mystery in the genre sense; its myriad dangling threads are meant to tease, not be solved. Similarly, Iizuka throws her philosophical, cultural and historical themes in the air for us to ponder as we will, rather than providing succinct lessons to be learned. It’s a tribute to her deftness — as well as that of Waters’ production and of the multicast thesps — that the play feels so deceptively light while encompassing so many dimensions, from historical errata to contempo satire.
Among the excellent design contributions, Mimi Lien’s shrinks the Roda proscenium space while allowing for some hidden-compartment reveals. Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting provides glaring, time-freezing photographic “flashes,” while Leah Gelpe’s video projections add texture.
Such elements could easily be pared down, however. Its complexities all on the page, “Devices” could work just as well for smaller theaters in a bare-bones physical presentation.