Pure Theatre Co.
Running through Sept. 23
Pure Theatre
The Cigar Factory, 701 East Bay St.

The art world, with its ruthless, intriguing, shady deals, has always held a mysterious quality. Naomi Iizuka’s 36 Views explores that world; but the real focus here is not on the cutthroat art industry but on a group of characters involved in it. Iizuka examines their motivations and histories, how their lives become entangled, and how their actions easily grow beyond their control.

The appropriately named Darius Wheeler is a dealer specializing in Asian art. He meets Dr. Setsuko Hearn, a scholar of Asian art, and is smitten. The question is, does he truly fall in love with her, or is she merely another Asian treasure for him to possess and admire?

Johnny Ali Heyward as Darius and Jamie George as Setsuko play off each other well, with their guardedness and growing flirtations creating a compelling dynamic.

John is Darius’ assistant, a brilliant and creative man who admires his intelligent but ruthless boss. John’s friend Claire does restoration work for Darius and loathes the dealer. Matt Bivins and Kara O’Neil turn in excellent performances as John and Claire. Bivins’ quiet, nervous mannerisms juxtaposed with O’Neil’s brash cynicism make for an ideal pairing.

The characters become entangled in the excitement over a unique and historic “pillow book” — sort of a Japanese courtesan’s diary — that has come to Darius’ attention. The book holds the keys to many of the characters’ futures, promising scholarly advancement, prestige, money, promotion, and even revenge.

The characters in 36 Views live in different realms — some in black and white, some in grey. Whether it be a question of art or a person’s identity, the notion of authenticity underlies much of Iizuka’s play.

Owen Matthiassen, an elderly art scholar and collector, is a sensible character, but he too becomes caught up in the frenzy over the book. Actor John Edwards infuses his character with an immense humor and likeability, even in Owen’s stuffiness.

Elizabeth Newman-Orr (played by Linda Eisen) is an enigmatic woman who tries to engage Darius in an illegal art deal; her character’s also involved in bringing to the forefront the issue of what is real.

Iizuka drew inspiration from a famous series of woodblock prints from Japanese artist Hokusai called Thirty-Six Views of Fuji. (Incidentally, the Gibbes Museum of Art has several works from Hokusai in its Japanese print collection.) Looking at her subject from many different perspectives, Iizuka examines the story in exactly 36 scenes. Iizuka’s play had traditional Japanese touches in its first run at New York’s Public Theater in 2002, and Pure’s production has retained many of those elements, which keep the play suspended in a setting between ancient and modern and east and west. Projections of woodblock prints adjust according to new themes throughout the scenes. Some of the costumes (by Christine Burchett) have the versatility and layers of kimonos, peeling away or shifting into a new modern costume, hiding secrets beneath them.

Director Dana Friedman has done an admirable job with this technically and thematically complex work. She’s taken risks with it, and they’ve worked. Pure has here taken its always edgy work to a new level, with a larger cast, more scenery, and a clear demonstration that they can up the ante with competent technical prowess. Even so, with 36 Views, they’ve assured that the heart and meaning behind this play remains its most powerful aspect.