Greg Watanabe

Caught in a lie, or a truth

Artists Rep's installation and performance "Caught" flirts with the boundaries of fact and fiction. Is it "real"? Who do you trust? Why?

As I walked into Artists Repertory Theatre I was greeted by the sight a Chinese man dressed as Chairman Mao, surrounded by dozens of automated maneki-neko (those little cat-statues you find at Chinese and Japanese restaurants). Together, they stared off into the mid-distance and waved, all slightly out of synch. The effect was strangely welcoming and unnerving at the same time. This is how Caught begins, a facsimile of Chairman Mao. A lie.

This was not the only lie the evening held.

 An usher handed me a guide for the gallery, attributed to Chinese artist Lin Bo, and encouraged me to take in the exhibit before the house opened. Throughout the lobby were Meditation Stations for the Consumed, circular curtains of blank price tags viewers could walk into and contemplate their existence as cogs in the machine of capitalism. Up on one of the walls was an interactive installation called Cloud Memory, which projected text messages from participating audience members onto a rustling field of white sequins.

Greg Watanabe with Mao on the wall in “Caught.” Photo: Russell J Young

By now it should be apparent that Caught is not a traditional theater performance. Nor a traditional art show. The visual art works in tandem with the performance, creating a space that opens the audience up to being led somewhere new.

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Words of loss, words of love

Portland Playhouse's "The Language Archive" deftly dives into the mysteries of language and the subtexts of love

As the guttersnipe turned singing elocutionist Eliza Doolittle put it, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” And as the playwright Julia Cho responds in her nimble, playful, sometimes deeply touching drama The Language Archive, “What is language but an act of faith?”

It must be an act of faith – and as Eliza notes, a frustrating one at that – because, as every writer and every would-be lover knows, words fail us. Constantly. They fail us almost without fail. Words attempt to describe the indescribable, and because it’s indescribable, they can only rudely approximate that thought, that feeling, that thing or chain of events that the speaker is trying to communicate. The heart, the soul, the nub of the thing is always beyond language. And yet the beauty of language is that as it bungles things, it also creates a new reality, a metaphorical parallel universe that becomes the repository of the constantly evolving story of what it means to be that particular kind of social animal we call human. Language is a beautiful map, and only through it can we explain ourselves, as imperfect and misleading as our explanations may be. Without words we are nothing. With words, we are an aspiring mess.

Greg Watanabe, lost in the language of facts. Photo: Brud Giles

Nobody in The Language Archive, which is getting a sweet and crisp and revealingly fragile production directed by Adriana Baer for Portland Playhouse, is more of an aspiring mess than George (Greg Watanabe), a brilliant linguist who studies the world’s lost and disappearing languages – those codes of communication and behavior that define an entire culture and so, in disappearing, represent the catastrophic loss of an entire way of life. What is it about each language that is indefinable, incapable of direct translation, understood fully only by those who speak it, and live it, and therefore know it before it becomes words?

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