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East meets West via uniquely visual ‘Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West’

Collector Dmitri Mendelssohn (Michael McKeogh) scene from TimeLine Theatre's 'Concerning Strange Devices From The Distant West.'

Collector Dmitri Mendelssohn (Michael McKeogh) in a scene from TimeLine Theatre's "Concerning Strange Devices From The Distant West."

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◆ Through April 14

◆ TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

◆ Tickets: $32-$42

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Updated: February 19, 2013 2:08PM

Study any of the grand paintings of the Renaissance and you might easily believe there could not possibly be a more sublime or detailed evocation of reality. Yet with the invention of the modern camera in the early half of the 19th century, there came the sense that reality could be recorded in a far more precise way. As it happens, that was not necessarily the case.

Every art form injects some distortion of the truth or reflects some choice made by the artist. And because the camera generally comes with a human sensibility behind it, the shaping (or warping) of reality is inevitable. This became evident long before the arrival of air-brushing, and Photoshop, and all the other technological enhancements now part of the medium’s ever-expanding toolbox.

How can the eye fool the mind? How can we ever really trust what we see? Can we ever really know another person? Can we make people vanish?

These are among the many questions Naomi Iizuka explores in her play, “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West,” which debuted at Berkeley Rep in 2010 and will receive its Midwest premiere this week at TimeLine Theatre under the direction of Lisa Portes.

It was a book of 19th century photographs of Japan — particularly an image of a heavily tattoed rickshaw driver — that first set Iizuka’s imagination in motion and resulted in her century-spanning, culture-crossing play. A puzzle-box of a story, it moves back and forth between 19th century Yokohama and 21st century Tokyo, and involves American visitors to the Far East, both then and now.

“That rickshaw driver was such a wonderful, unusual image from the Meiji era,” said Iizuka, who is the daughter of a Japanese banker and American Latina mother, and who was born in Japan, grew up in Indonesia, Holland and Washington, D.C., and now lives in California.

“Everything on the man— his back, his arms, his thighs — was covered with the most unusual tattoos. And the photograph — sepia-toned, but hand-colored by Japanese artists, which was the fashion of the time — made me wonder about who he was and who had taken the picture. And of course there also were images of geishas, teahouse girls, street vendors, peasants, convicted criminals, married women who blackened their teeth, and beautiful landscapes, too.”

The play’s Yokohama scenes suggest a city that was the bustling port-of-entry for a Japan largely closed to foreigners in the late 19th century — a place where Westerners were mostly segregated, clustering in a particular area.

“The scenes in Tokyo are contemporary and suggest the big city with high-tech signage and all the rest that we immediately think of,” said Iizuka. “But when I visit there it’s the strange little alleyways, teahouses and hidden residential neighborhoods that I find most intriguing. I like to pull back the curtains, get underneath and behind things.”

Many of the photographs in the book that inspired Iizuka came from the Yokohama studio of Adolfo Farsari, an Italian who had made his way to the United States, fought in the Civil War, and then became a successful photographer and entrepreneur in Japan, where he sold his work primarily to foreign residents and visitors. His widely distributed images went a long way in shaping foreign perceptions of the country.

“The photographs of that period serve as an amazing window into a vanished culture,” said Iizuka. “They made me wonder: What would possess people to travel halfway around the globe, land on those shores, and try to make a life there? And because I’ve always been interested in the mysterious way that photography can preserve a moment — and the anxieties of mortality that can suggest — it all coalesced into the perfect storm behind this play.”

As for the tattoos of the period — which also are an essential element in the play — Iizuka confesses that while she has none (“They were really quite taboo for my Dad’s generation”), they are seen everywhere in modern Japan, as well as on most of the people she knows.

“As for that ‘strange device,’ Japan became camera-crazy in the 1960s, taking the technology and running with it,” said the prolific playwright who is the mother of a six-year-old son and who, since 2008, serves as head of M.F.A playwrighting at the University of California, San Diego.

“Concerning Strange Devices” is full of what Iizuka describes as “optical illusions,” so it makes sense that two of Chicago’s most gifted visual magicians — set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge and projection designer Mike Tutaj — are working on the production.

“In essence we’re creating a sort of origami, folding, fractal surface,” said Bembridge. The tattoos are created by Mike’s projections and videos, as well as with the use of body stockings. And there is a garden of lanterns. I think it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before at TimeLine.”

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