There are very few things you can take at face value in local trickster-playwright Christopher Chen’s “Caught,” now in a compelling Shotgun Players production that’s beautifully directed by Susannah Martin.
This is a play in which the medium is indeed the message — or perhaps one of the messages. The very twists and turns of plot and dialogue, the unpredictable structure, the varied performance styles and theatrical genres and the way the actors/characters transform — all lead to one big, unanswerable question: What is truth? Or: Does truth even exist?
Chen is up to more than just playing head games with the existential puzzle, though.
His intricately layered text, in which realities constantly shift, also explores notions of cultural appropriation, identity and the responsibility of the artist and the struggle to understand “the other” both intellectually and emotionally.
First off, we are introduced to Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo (the wonderful Jomar Tagatac). (Pop-up Xiong Gallery collaborated on the production, providing artwork.)
We’re told that Lin Bo had promoted, on social media, a gathering: a commemoration for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Despite the fact that it was a hoax in the form of an online conceptual art project, he was jailed for two years. With slides of artwork, he describes his ghastly incarceration.
But is he being truthful? In the play’s second scene, in the offices of The New Yorker, he’s quizzed about the veracity of his claims by a journalist and editor (Elissa Stebbins and Mick Mize) who had published a feature story on him.
For an artist like Lin Bo — or real-life monologist Mike Daisey, or real-life writer James Frey and others who are referenced in this scene — is there a larger truth that can be reached only through fiction?
By the third scene, audiences ought to be on guard. Actor Stebbins, simultaneously as herself and as the pop-up gallery curator, begins an onstage interview with important Chinese artist Wang Min (El Beh), creator of “this extraordinary, hybrid theater-art installation piece.”
But the discussion becomes quite unsettling as an increasingly aggressive Wang Min confronts the interviewer’s perceptions and assumptions.
Ultimately, when two of the actors take off their costumes and revert to, seemingly, their true selves, the audience knows this: You can’t second-guess the clever and fascinating Chen. And the Shotgun cast meets his challenges every step of the convoluted way.
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, closes Sept. 23 (additional performances in December)
Tickets: $25 to $35
Contact: (510) 841-6500, www.shotgunplayers.org