Art and politics mix in an intriguing way in “Caught,” a clever play that mainly wants to keep you off guard — but an experience that keeps you on your toes.
Written by Christopher Chen, his playful imagination is revealed as a Chinese dissident artist is in town for a retrospective.
Director Seth Gordon deftly sets the scenes in The Rep’s Studio Theatre. The high-energy opening has audience members enter the Xiong Collective’s “Devil in a Red Dress” exhibit. An earnest docent helps us understand this is a hybrid theater/art installation, obviously politically motivated as vivid red and symbols of oppression are viewed.
Then, artist Lin Bo recounts his imprisonment for his work, referring to a prominent feature in The New Yorker.
That begins a labyrinth, as actors present perceptions of truth, global politics, social justice and how art and culture can get co-opted.
But I can’t tell you more than that. No spoilers allowed. Just know that nothing is as it first appears and forget rules.
The show may be unusual, but the staging itself is traditional. Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan’s keen eye emphasizes non-descript trappings – a magazine office, a talk-back setting, and a stage set for an artist introduction.
Rusty Wandall’s sound design and Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting design are noteworthy elements. Talented Albert Yowshien Kuo is responsible for the art, and Kylee Loera did fine work as the projection designer.
The sharp cast never tips its hand. Like a savvy magician, they set up the fake-outs perfectly so that you don’t see the twists coming at all, and when you do figure it out, must backtrack to figure out how exactly you were fooled.
Kenneth Lee is convincing as Lin Bo, who meets with magazine staffers Bob (Jeffrey Cummings) and Joyce (Rachel Fenton). Rachel Lin, as cagey Wang Min, will share the stage with sly Fenton as a curator.
Chen builds anticipation after the first few reveals, and that’s a fun aspect, of trying to stay one step ahead as this runaway train takes off from the station.
Chen won an Obie Award for playwrighting, for the 2016 production of “Caught” at The Play Company and was nominated for a Drama League Award last year. The L.A. Drama Critics Circle nominated “Caught” for writing this year.
He obviously has a flair for contemporary socio-political themes, so it’s on the page, but Gordon does fine work here as a director too. He shrewdly stages it in a straightforward manner, and the timing is impeccable, but we must pay attention to what the performers are saying because that’s where the lines are blurred.
In this day of reality TV and info-entertainment, charges of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it’s easy to see how information can be compromised.
“Caught” is a different kind of play for a new age, and will fuel old-style face-to-face conversations after viewing. You have to talk about what you just saw — and heard.
“Caught” runs through March 25 in The Rep’s Studio Theatre on the campus of Webster University. For more information or tickets, visit www.repstl.org