Review: Hyde Park Theatre's Caught

Theatrical bait and switch drives this intriguing, infuriating play

(l-r) Robert Pierson, Rebecca Robinson, and Norman Tran in Hyde Park Theatre's Caught (Photo by Pearson Kaslak)

This review will be brief, not because there's so little to say but because there's so little to say that won't be a spoiler for Caught, Christopher Chen's 2017 Obie Award winner.

Chen's stories tend to explore the art of artifice in creative enterprise, with a particular focus on the immorality and dishonesty found in the worlds of art, propaganda, and journalism. His storytelling merges naturalism with metatheatrics, revealing the deception behind what appears to be authentic. So in describing his work, there's the very real risk of ruining the experience of seeing it.

Suffice it to say, Caught is not a pleasant evening of fluffy escapism. Instead, it is a thought-provoking, brain-bending mind-fuck of a play where we are offered a labyrinthine exploration of truth, social justice, and cultural appropriation in contemporary art. And nothing is as it first appears.

The play begins with Hyde Park Theatre serving as a pop-up gallery showcasing a handful of conceptual art pieces by Lin Bo, a dissident Chinese street artist who spent two grueling years in prison after organizing a subversive protest commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Bo's event was virtual and, like NFT-based artwork, had no physical presence and produced no trail to verify its existence. Still, he was arrested and, thanks to a New Yorker profile of the artist, quickly became the poster child for cancel culture in China.

Once seated, we are introduced to Bo (Norman Tran), who delivers a lengthy, well-rehearsed TED Talk about his art, the state of China, and his imprisonment. The earnest and soft-spoken artist, struggling his way through broken English, easily generates sympathy and admiration. That is, until we learn in the next scene – an interrogation by Bob, the unlikable editor of The New Yorker (Robert Pierson), and Joyce, the thin-skinned freelance journalist who wrote Bo's story (Rebecca Robinson) – that Bo and his internment may not what they appear to be.

Neither is anything else in this play. This includes Bob and Joyce, and contemporary Chinese artist Wang Min (Esther Park) whose thoughtful reflections about the commodifying of another's pain and repression in one's art occupies the next scene. Nor is the discussion between two friends of a deceased dissident artist (Tran and Park) that reinforces the notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth in art or life, just personal truth based on perception, interpretation, and vantage point. The absence of absolute truth tends to be the unifying theme in this play.

Wang Min's highly cerebral explanation about truth in art is delivered with intense confidence and unwavering authority, but her intelligent banter is merely pointless patter, cleverly designed to disorient and dumbfound the audience. And then these realities dissolve, the rug gets pulled out from under our feet, and it becomes clear that we've been played. For a purpose.

All this subterfuge is orchestrated with precise and imperceptible sleight of hand by director Ken Webster, although the contributions of designers Mark Pickell (set), Amy Lewis (lighting), Robert S. Fisher (sound), and Leroy Sakowitz (costume) are minimal. Walking through the gallery located in the theatre's small performance space is not nearly the immersive, multimedia experience offered by the off-Broadway and L.A. productions of Caught, and the production values throughout this presentation are not particularly engaging. Fortunately, Webster's cast most certainly is, and they have a collective finger on the pulse of this complicated one-act play.

Hmmm, looks like this review is not so brief after all. Pardon the deception, but you'd best get used to it should you attend HPT's production of this infuriating and intriguing play. And you should.

Hyde Park Theatre's Caught

511 W. 43rd, 512/479-7529
Through Sept. 23
Running time: Approx. 1 hr., 30 min.

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Caught, Christopher Chen, Robert Pierson, Rebecca Robinson, Norman Tran, Esther Park, Mark Pickell, Amy Lewis, Robert S. Fisher, Leroy Sakowitz, Ken Webster, Hyde Park Theatre

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