Most of us would like to imagine we're not easy to deceive, that we have enough of a grasp on reality to distinguish facts from lies. Playwright Christopher Chen wants to prove we don't.
"We've always had a shaky relationship with the truth," he says.
Caught, the San Francisco playwright's new work, is intended to examine the rapidly widening territory between truth and fiction. It's the story of noted Chinese visual and performance artist and activist Lin Bo, who served a two-year sentence in a Chinese detention center for actions deemed subversive to the state.
Artists Repertory Theatre will bring Chen's 2016 play to Portland in October. Lin Bo will attend to introduce the play, and a touring installation of the artist's work will be displayed in the theater's lobby. Bo's art is more than just an appendage to the play, it's essential to placing Caught within its proper context.
That context can't really be described without revealing Chen's sleight of hand. Caught is a cryptic piece of theater that constantly unspools new revelations and points of view.
"The play offers one half of the experience, the conversation, and the audience needs to meet it and provide the other 50 percent of the experience," Chen says. "The audience is ultimately unmoored from any consistent mind frame they can rest in, relax in."
It's easier to talk about Caught through the infamous case of Mike Daisey, which partly inspired the play. An actor and storyteller, Daisey based his 2012 one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs on interviews with workers at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are manufactured.
Daisey drew attention to underage workers and a nasty chemical nerve agent in the manufacturing process that caused workers' hands to tremble. It inspired a national backlash against Apple.
Problem was, the story was a lie. Not all of it was fake, but the guts of the story—the details that elicited the most visceral reaction—were fabricated. It didn't fool just audiences. A whole episode of This American Life was devoted to Daisey's story.
Daisey argued his play did reflect a certain truth: Conditions inside the factory were bad. In the context of the theater, where he intended his monologue to be performed, there was dramatic license. The inaccuracies were not the same thing as lies, he said.
Caught wonders the same thing. In its broadest sense, Chen's play is about the power—and danger—of hybridizing truth and fiction. "The play is ultimately advocating for an alert and questioning state of mind when dealing with social issues," Chen says. "I hope they leave with a sense that they have more permission to question things than when they came in."
At the same time, Chen wants his audience to be swept up in the play's legerdemain. "I want them to be delighted in much the same way as you make a pact with a magician," he adds. "You want to be fooled, you are game for their illusions."
SEE IT: Caught plays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. Oct. 1-29.