Some themes in art appear over and over because they need to. That's the case with this play, whose story is built around a forgery. It's about deception, authenticity, and our need to believe. It's all stuff we "know" but often have trouble remembering – or simply find agreeable to forget.
Just as with the multiple kimonos one character wears, playwright Naomi Iizuka dons, then strips away, layer upon layer of story. The forgery is of an 11th-century Japanese courtesan's journal, written by an overeducated 21st-century white American guy. His boss is a sketchy art dealer (named Darius Wheeler) who covets the forgery, and whose reasons for that include the fact that he's fallen for Setsuko, an Asian-American scholar of that very sort of writing.
So: A portrait soliliquied upon in one scene is dismissed as of "iffy" authenticity in the next. Later, Darius – whom we've seen insisting that "happy" simply "means happy" – says of one artwork, "There are fakes and then there are fakes." Then we learn he's lying there, too.
Iizuka (and maybe director Karla Boos) employs a couple of smart techniques to express the subjectivity of our gaze. At one point these include a literal veil over one artwork that's literally lifted as one character's illusions are dispelled.
The dialogue, meanwhile, often suggests not only characters trapped in a web of lies, but interesting games being played with the audience. For instance, Setsuko lauds the "pillow book" (which we know to be fraudulent) as having "a voice that was … unmistakably female." But of course we understand that the playwright, three of whose characters are men, is practicing the same sort of gender impersonation. What's engaged on one level is that eternal question of our willing suspension of disbelief in a work of fiction.
Ultimately, however, the play mentions more themes than it explores, including but not limited to Westerners' tendency to exoticize the Orient, and whether art becomes less beautiful as it becomes more graphic in its depictions. The central romance plays out a bit flatly, too.
Meanwhile, the production, with its handsome outdoor setting in an amphitheater at one end of Washington's Landing, is ankled by ambient noise. Train horns blow; motorboats growl; the cicadas provide a constant percussive background; barges honk. (At one point in the performance I saw, after Setsuko offers Darius her theory about how the courtesans' habit of writing in their native language -- men wrote in Chinese -- freed them to express their true emotions, a barge passes, and Darius responds, "Well, that sounds [hoooonnk].")
One thing 36 Views surprisingly brought to mind was the recent L.A. Fitness shootings here. The shooter's online journal was widely quoted. In all the news coverage I saw, no one seemed to question whether the man's account of his social and romantic isolation might not be entirely true. It was a "journal," true. But because it was one he knowingly posted online, it was also a performance. Perhaps then, also, part lie.
What 36 Views reminds us is that we all to some extent (perhaps a large extent) believe what we want to believe, for our own reasons, facts be damned. (Why might people want to believe the gym shooter might go on a rampage simply because he hadn't had sex in year?) And we lie in the same way. At its best, 36 Views gives us characters' subtle negotiations with themselves as they gauge how much they want to tell a lie, what it will get them, and how much the other person wishes to hear it.
And the little fake moons of the stage lights illuminate all.
36 Views continues through Sun., Aug. 30.