MAY 17, 2010

The strange device in Naomi Iizurka’s play Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West is the camera. 

While the camera at issue happens to be the plate-glass behemoth that pioneer photographers brought to Japan in the 1880s, the inspiration for Mimi Lien’s set design for the play’s world premiere at California’s Berkeley Rep was the interior of a more modern device, the single lens reflex camera with its internal chambers of odd angles to extend, hold, and retract the mirrors that direct images to the film and to the viewfinder.

The play is a three-section, two-period, one-act piece that blends the world of western photographers in Yokohama in 1884 capturing images of the rapidly disappearing traditional culture of Japan with present day Tokyo, where a new generation of westerners come searching for any remaining prints because they have become highly valuable to collectors.

As is her practice, Lien visited the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre before coming up with her design. “Since my background before becoming a set designer was in architecture, it’s actually a really important part of my process. I try to utilize the existing architecture as much as possible, if not actually to inform the set design directly, then at least to acknowledge it,” she says. The Roda has a fairly industrial, structural aesthetic to start with, so the camera conceit sits well in the house.

Caddywampus might be a good term for her multi-chambered set if it weren’t for the fact that that term implies either confusion or being out of kilter, and there is a strong logic to each of the angles and surfaces in Lien’s creation. For the 19th-century scenes in Yokohama, she used the SLR camera conceit with many mat-black surfaces. Angled over the stage, a sky-light is a retractable illuminated panel. At center stage, behind the lip of a slanted opening, is a square space for an image—a space that comes alive when the subjects being photographed become visible only to be obscured by a blinding flash of surrounding lights.

For the 21st-century scenes in Tokyo, she slides a wagon on from the wings, a multi-level structure with lights embedded in the risers and surfaces while video screens are illuminated in the black surfaces behind the actors.

Lien’s striking visual design is particularly effective for a play that has been written as a design-intensive piece. Even before rehearsals began and the designs had been fully formed, sound designer Bray Poor commented, “Naomi has written a play that is actually half design, half play.”

We took a look at the script to see exactly what he meant. Among the sound-specific items that Poor had to deal with were: “A thousand cicadas hidden in the darkness, the sound their wings make, a kind of whirring, the sound of breathing, the sound of love-making.”

Poor’s solution had to blend with his colleagues’ work as well because the stage direction continued with tasks for lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols: “Flickers of flesh and light, indecipherable. Lights up on a Japanese woman in a kimono looking in a mirror. Her hair is long and black. It trails on the floor. She undoes her kimono. The kimono drops. White skin and black hair. Flash.”

And then the directions added a concept where projection/video designer Leah Gelpe could fill the bill. She provided a fast-paced stage-spanning video of a girl projected on the black surfaces of Lien’s set to comply with the direction: “A little girl runs past and is gone.”

Finally, a combined lighting and sound moment: “Lights up on a blind monk playing flute. Flash. The sound of rain and thunder.”

Video and projection became more involved in the second section Tokyo scenes which were defined in the script this way: “The bar at the Park Hyatt Hotel ... Evening ... We see this scene as though we were surveilling the action via multiple hidden cameras placed in different parts of the bar. As the scene progresses, we see the characters from different angles. We see them from across a room and then suddenly up close. We see close-ups of the characters’ faces: eyes, moths, lips, a loose strand of hair, the curve of a jawline. We get so close, we don’t recognize what we’re seeing.”

Costume design was not to be ignored either. Not only did designer Annie Smart need to come up with both Victorian-era and contemporary costumes, two of the performers had to have full-body tattoos at various times during the play, and they needed to be free of tattoos at other times and avoid the problem of tattoo makeup smearing during costume changes.

Smart researched Edo and Meiji period tattoos before the Rep’s costume shop, under Maggi Yule, created wearable, printable small tattoos or printed larger ones onto full body stockings.

The end result was, as Poor had predicted, a design-intensive collaboration.

"Camera" Yes, But Definitely Not "Obscura"

Berkeley Rep Mounts Design-Intensive Premiere of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West