Art is the nominal subject of “36 Views,” Naomi Iizuka’s complex charm box of a play by the Constellation Theatre Company at the Source, so it may be fitting that one of its most striking aspects is its visual splendor.
Multi-paneled screens with colorful, subtly changing projections shift into view and fold into one another as the paper doors of A.J. Guban’s set slide across the modest stage. As they do, deeper spaces of the set are shown with further images from projection designer Aaron Fisher, just as Iizuka’s play, first staged in 2002, reveals insights on its characters and their situational ethics.
In the nimble production directed by Constellation’s founding artistic director, Allison Stockman, Jim Jorgensen plays a scheming art dealer, snaky in his approach and lying as it suits his needs regarding the ancient Asian art he sells. As soon as he’s on the modest stage, he’s so tall he seems out of place and suspect.
All those around him have a reason to use subterfuge to advance their own causes, as well, including his skilled assistant (Ashley Ivey), an artist and restorer (Tuyet Thi Pham) and a scholar (Sue Jin Song), who reveals herself from a Kabuki mask and a series of colorful kimonos.
She works with an aging professor (David Paglin) to find rare works of beauty from ancient times, and they believe they’ve found a masterwork. Megan Dominy plays an investigative journalist trying to expose fraud, relying on the wiles Jorgensen’s character has been using all along.
Inspired by the famous, colorful wood block prints by Katsushika Hokusai, “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” Iizuka’s play is presented in 36 scenes, each broken with a wood block’s clap, that can change location, jump time or pause for poetry.
The modernist approach gives the play snap and abstraction, and yet the play starts to succeed when news comes that an ancient cache of a courtesan’s vividly illustrated diary, called a pillow book, might have been unearthed.
Song’s character’s excitement at this prospect is the jolt the play needs, and the plotting that follows of making the forgeries gains in velocity. Unfortunately, all the hopes are built on the shaky foundation of what is real, for, as Pham’s character points out, even a real forgery is real in its own way.
It’s an engrossing house of cards as vivid and ultimately fragile as the projected woodcuts and sliding paper doors.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
by Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Scenic/lighting design, A.J. Guban; costumes, Kendra Rai; sound, Palmer Hefferan; projections, Aaron Fisher. With Jim Jorgensen, Sue Jin Song, Ashley Ivey, Tuyet Thi Pham, Megan Dominy, David S. Paglin. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 24 at the Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Visit www.constellationtheatre.org or call 202-204-7741.