In the art world, sometimes even the experts can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake. And in life, too, deception can be hard to uncover. Those realities are at the heart of Naomi Iizuka’s play “36 Views.”
“What makes something an original versus a duplicate or a copy?” asks director Allison Stockman, the founding artistic director of Constellation Theatre, which is staging Iizuka’s play. “It raises that question in human relationships of what’s real. When you say I love you to somebody and it’s not the first person you said I love you to, is that real? Is that a copy of love?”
The play revolves around the discovery of an ancient Japanese “pillow book,” or courtesan’s diary. A team of Asian art experts works to determine its origin, even as their personal connections are tested.
In Constellation’s production, the question of authenticity in art also was raised behind the scenes as Stockman began staging the work. She decided to use video projections for the first time.
“I have been wary of them, because in the past I’ve felt like they were too much like film . . . and theater should be based more in three dimensions than two,” the director says. “But in this play, it feels like it’s adding a fourth dimension.”
Stockman enlisted projection designer Aaron Fisher to bring the play’s Asian artworks to life.
“These characters see these paintings much differently than anyone else would,” Fisher says. “What the projections are going to do is tap the audience into the character so we can see what they’re seeing with their eye . . . or we can travel further into their optical nerve into their brain to see it as the character sees it.”
That means, for example, that when a character is describing a work of art as being slightly off-color, the projection’s tone shifts ever so slightly, enough to make the audience question the work’s authenticity as much as the characters do. Lest the whole thing become an Art History 101 slideshow, Fisher is taking some creative liberties with the paintings, animating them or darkening them to fit the play’s mood as if they are characters themselves.
“It has to always be a character,” he says. “It’s important to have them relate to the actors.”
In staging the play, Stockman also realized a few things about what makes theater feel real and true, and her feelings parallel those of the art experts in “36 Views.”
“You get a physical sensation looking at the art, and you just know,” she says. “It’s something visceral that you experience that can’t be fully expressed in words. That’s my experience in the theater.”
Through Nov. 24 at the Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 202-204-7741. www.constellationtheatre.org. $25-$45. On Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Source, Constellation will host “Art in Play: A Curator’s Notes on Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views,” a free discussion with James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery.