When you arrive at Artists Repertory Theatre for its production of Qín (Caught), Mao Zedong greets you in the lobby. Actor Larry Toda, playing the infamous Chinese dictator, stands at the entrance to the first phase of the show: a crowded art exhibit filled with everything from meditation alters to chubby model cats.
It's a dizzying display that leaves you overwhelmed before you even take your seat, and that feeling of instability continues to grow once the theatrical portion of Caught begins. Armed with Christopher Chen's brilliant and bizarre script, director Shawn Lee has staged a show that defies description.
Caught tells the story of Lin Bo, the artist credited with creating the show's art installation and who was imprisoned by the Chinese government for political activism.
It's far from a traditional play. The first scene is a PowerPoint presentation hosted by Bo. Dressed in a dark jacket, he recalls his imprisonment after he protested against the Tiananmen Square massacre. As he describes the details of his incarceration—the abysmal food, the toilet filled with rats—he becomes so emotional that you can see sweat glistening on his forehead.
Emotions run ever higher in the following scene, which appears to be a strange mix of fiction and reality. A reporter for The New Yorker (Sarah Hennessy) and her editor (Chris Harder) ruthlessly grill Bo about his experiences in captivity.
As they harp on seemingly insignificant details—does it matter whether or not Bo was served cabbage soup?—the racism-tinged spectacle of two white Americans denying the legitimacy of Bo's torment becomes almost unbearable to watch.
But what exactly are we watching? Caught works with revelatory, insidious force as it mutates from one kind of a show into another and into yet another after that. To reveal much more than that would ruin its slippery spell.
Lee and Chen challenge your perception of both Bo and yourself. When Bo laments that he is viewed as a "symbol of all Chinese suffering," it's easy to pity him as a tragic icon. Yet as Caught gradually reveals Bo to be a flawed and multifaceted human being, you're forced to recognize that to merely pity him is to deny his humanity.
The cast navigate Bo's story with grace, and reveal new dimensions of their characters with every scene. Actor Greg Watanabe's performance is both fluid and shape-shifting. Like most of Caught, it's hard to explain the full extent of Watanabe's work without spoiling the whole play.
But for all its deception, Caught is wildly entertaining. Its hairpin narrative turns may be unsettling, but they're the reason the entire experience is a giddy thrill. Caught rewrites beliefs about what theater can and should be in real time.
SEE IT: Caught plays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. Through Oct. 29.