Pillow Fight 

Iizuka's lively play is like a pillow book itself, its pages turning to show surprising new dimensions and revelations.

Sometimes we want certain things -- fame, money, love, the respect of our peers -- so much that we blind ourselves to reality, or oversimplify it. In USC grad Naomi Iizuka's 36 Views, now in its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep, six people struggle with questions of authenticity, ethics, and ownership when a mysterious 11th-century "pillow book" surfaces and promises to change their lives -- as well as the fields of literature and Japanese history -- forever. Each character is using the pillow book to get something he or she wants, but is the fragile collection of poems and lists inked on mulberry-leaf paper really what they think it is? For that matter, is anybody what everyone else thinks they are? Iizuka's lively play is like a pillow book itself, its pages turning to show surprising new dimensions and revelations, asking questions that reverberate long after the last curtain call.

Named after Hokusai's famous series of prints featuring Mt. Fuji in its many guises, 36 Views strives to convey some of the same kaleidoscopic sensibility -- multiple views of the same subject (mountain, pillow book, art, truth) that, taken together, provide the viewer with certain intimate knowledge. Iizuka throws everything into the blender: woodblock printing in the ukiyo-e and tsukuri-e styles, the erotic prints known as shunga, pillow books, and the world's first novel -- Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, detailing the sexual escapades of an emperor's son. Director Mark Wing-Davey and his design team have created a spare, fluid set -- replete with sliding shoji and video screens -- that is in almost constant motion. One moment it's Wheeler's expensive gallery, then it's restorer Claire Tsung's battered loft, then it's an ancient Japanese court where a highly literate woman trails her long kimono sleeves in the reflecting pool and longs for moments past. The story itself moves back and forth effortlessly through time, tying together the stories of the present-day characters with that of the nameless narrator.

Dr. Owen Matthiasen wants academic posterity. Associate professor Satsuko Hearn wants to crack the mystery of Heian-era women's lives. Art dealer Darius Wheeler wants Satsuko. His assistant John wants to be left alone, while John's artist friend Claire wants to take Darius down a notch, or several, while making her statement about the business of art -- which she refers to as "money jazzed up to look like something else." Elizabeth wants Darius to do something questionable for her. All see the pillow book as a tool to their ends, and most end up thwarted, or diverted.

Iizuka cleverly incorporates a character we never exactly meet -- the reclusive contemporary painter Utagawa, whose daring work appeals to Satsuko and leaves Darius cold. "Perhaps it's not Oriental enough for you," Satsuko comments dryly, noticing rightly that Darius' tastes are utterly predictable. As it happens, Utagawa is a name with a long and respected history in ukiyo-e: Kuniyoshi Utagawa, who lived from 1797 to 1861, was especially well-known for his prints of "ordinary" women -- talking, working, preparing ceramic figurines for sale, etc. -- as well as his daring with technique and materials. Iizuka's fictional Utagawa has a lot in common with the real Utagawas, which adds another layer of intrigue to the question of what makes a thing "real." But Iizuka doesn't stop with printmakers in her allusions -- Satsuko shares a last name with Lafcadio Hearn, whose writings introduced Japan to the larger world.

Iizuka's language swoops from wildly poetic (Darius' opening monologue, where he describes buying pearls and pigeon's blood rubies) to oddly stilted (particularly the dialogue written for the female characters). It's tightly written, though, and deserves careful attention -- there are messages within messages, and nothing is wasted. Woven throughout the action of the play is a section from the pillow book -- sometimes acted out -- and it's interesting to note that with each reading the text changes, as though the characters are only responding to the part that is personally meaningful.

But it's not all academic fun and games -- this show also has some amazing costumes, funky music, and enough near-nudity and coolly choreographed sex to keep teenagers fascinated beside their squirming parents. Wing-Davey selectively utilizes Japanese stage conventions -- on-the-fly costume changes, incomprehensible outbursts and mock fighting postures at moments of emotional intensity, and visible black-clad stagehands -- to keep the show as visually varied as it is philosophically engaging.

The characters run the gamut from icily reserved (Satsuko) to hotheaded and impatient (Claire). Ebon Moss-Bachrach is totally familiar and wonderfully clumsy as John Bell, "cheap, overeducated slave labor" in Claire's words, a grad student who has stalled out on his thesis and is way too smart for his job as Darius' assistant. The lanky Moss-Bachrach is at his best when he's fretting over a lie he couldn't stop himself from telling and the hullabaloo it creates ("I just happened to be lying with this incredible degree of specificity," he moans) -- pulling at his disheveled curls, crouching beside his desk as though to hide under it, and imploring Claire not to take advantage of a certain opportunity that has arisen. Butch, forthright Claire (Elaine Tse), on the other hand, is spoiling for a fight. Haranguing John about not living up to his potential, threatening to damage ancient treasures she herself has restored, and asking barbed questions about what makes something "real," Claire is a disaster waiting to happen to somebody else. Not to mention that of a cast full of characters with secrets, Claire's are the most interesting, and will have the most to do with how the play unfolds. Tse is suitably gruff and unpredictable as the young artist, vibrant and angry in contrast to the cowering John and the slick, slightly oily Darius. Bill Camp's Darius is a little troublesome (Matt McKenzie will take over the role October 16-28) -- while the character's professional and personal ethics are questionable and his pursuit of Satsuko transparent both to her and the audience, it's hard not to admire the way he slides out of traps. Liana Pai is a cipher as Satsuko -- witty and sharp, yet unwilling to reveal herself in any meaningful way until the discovery of the pillow book draws her out.

Sleek and lovely as it is, 36 Views does occasionally sacrifice emotional truthfulness to its larger concepts. Still, there are several highly charged moments: Darius falling apart with lust, John and Claire arguing, the nameless Heian poet recounting the fading of love. The seductions -- visible even from a mile away -- ring true in their awkwardness. The questions raised are good ones, even if you have no interest in either collecting art or authenticating artifacts. Everyone gets what's coming to them, usually in unexpected ways. For all of its coolness, 36 Views is bright, clever, and engrossing.

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