Haunting ‘Strange Devices’ reveals photos can lie 

Now that nearly every person in America has a digital camera, it’s hard to imagine the impact photographs — especially those from different cultures — had on early viewers.

In “Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West,” which made its world premiere last week at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a picture of an American woman taken in ­19th-century Japan sends ripples through time right up to the present day.

Naomi Iizuka’s haunting new play begins in 1885, when Isabel Hewlett (a wistful Kate Eastwood Norris), the wife of an American arms dealer, arrives in Yokohama.

Wandering into a back-alley photography studio, she meets American ex-patriot Andrew Farsari (Bruce McKenzie), who makes his living taking pictures of geishas, monks and rickshaw drivers.

Isabel, like many Westerners with a taste for the exotic, is both fascinated and repelled; instantly attracted to the tattooed man (Johnny Wu) posing for Andrew, she hires the photographer on the spot to take her portrait in a kimono.

If the results of her cultural bias are mostly benign — her inquiry about Andrew’s “arrangement” with a Japanese serving woman is hilarious — those of Isabel’s husband, Edmund (Danny Wolohan), are appalling.

Japanese men, he tells Andrew, are “monkeys,” while the women are “little tiny dolls” there for the taking. When Isabel discovers that Edmund is keeping a Japanese woman on the side, their marriage develops an irreparable rift.

Iizuka introduces a second storyline on a parallel track a century later, as an American art collector (McKenzie as Dmitri) comes to Tokyo seeking rare Meiji-era photographs. He engages a translator (a bright Teresa Avia Lim as Kiku) to help him make the deal, and as they meet in the bar of a high-rise hotel, we see how much the stakes — and the technology — of photography have changed, while the old stereotypes remain the same.

Director Les Waters gives the play a fluid production, with Mimi Lien’s set of asymmetrical walls, sliding screens and inner ­chambers augmented by Alexander V. Nichols’ vibrant lighting and Leah Gelpe’s excellent still photograph and video projections.

Annie Smart’s costumes and Bray Poor’s sound designs smooth the transitions between eras. The cast is strong, with McKenzie’s glum Dmitri and Lim’s irrepressible Kiku the standouts.

Iizuka, who took the play’s title from an early book on Japanese photography, links the stories in intriguing ways.

The beauty of “Concerning Strange Devices” is how it tests the notion that the camera never lies; here, the camera obscures as many truths as it reveals. A photograph, says Isabel, is “a memory you can hold in your hand.” In the end, memories prove the more reliable of the two.

Theater review
Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes April 11
Tickets: $13.50 to $71
Contact: (510) 647-2949; www.berkeleyrep.org

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