(l to r) Bruce McKenzie and Kate Eastwood Norris star in the world premiere of Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
“Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West” is a new play by Naomi Iizuka which is currently enjoying it’s world premier on the stage of Berkeley Repertory Theater.
It merits a mention here, not because it is a wonderful play and an enjoyable evening (which it certainly is), but because the “strange device” of the title is, in fact, the camera.
The name is taken from an ancient Japanese document which, for the first time, unlocked the secrets of photography and enabled the Japanese themselves to make use of this mysterious technology which was until then was used exclusively by westerners to create an image of Japan for their home countries that met expectations, rather than reflected reality.
The action starts in 19th Century Japan, where a foreigner with a large wooden wet-plate camera is capturing interesting characters and scenes of local life to sell to western tourists. His subjects pose for money and play their parts as directed and we learn of the impact these images have on travelers who, perhaps, don’t find quite what they expect when they arrive.
We are then transported to the present day, where a collector of these old photographs – together with a couple of forgers – play out another story. The forgeries take on an slightly ironic aspect, after the revelations of the previous act, and we are forced to think about what we might really be seeing when we look at a photograph.
The introduction of the camera is presented as a pivot point between old isolationist Japan, and modern technological Japan. It is also a commentary on how photographs are used and what they do, and do not, represent.
The show is a technical marvel with slick scene changes, clever lighting and projections of Meiji images and modern skylines. Berkeley Rep’s production of Strange Devices captures a hint of the awe that the Japanese must have experienced when the curious camera was introduced. It’s interesting to observe who dominates the world of the camera today…