Do you recall what precipitated George Michael coming out back in 1998? Does the phrase “wide stance” mean anything to you? Don’t feel bad if it doesn’t. Today, anonymous gay sex in public toilets has slipped from headline news and public (at least heterosexual) consciousness. But Chay Yew’s Porcelain remember for you. The play, now being produced by the Caduceus Theater Arts Company, premiered in 1992, yet because it specifically considers a man caught between two worlds and fitting in neither, its continued relevance is sad, but can’t be questioned.
Like others before him (and certainly after), Yew’s John Lee is a man who’s yearning for connection led him to seek anonymous sex in a public toilet. But John wasn’t looking for something physical, he was in need of more, and that’s why the 19-year-old Chinese Brit, Cambridge-bound, is sitting in prison at the start of the play, accused of murdering his lover, William Hope, the man he met during clandestine cottaging.
While awaiting trial, John is visited by Dr. Jack Worthing, a criminal psychologist tasked with determining John’s sanity, though that’s not Worthing’s only goal. Worthing is in cahoots with Alan White, a Channel 4 TV presenter making a documentary about the case. For his help, Worthing is promised 1,000 pounds. Through flashbacks, interviews for the TV cameras, and sessions with Worthing, John’s story is revealed, but it’s about more than six shots that took a man’s life, or a weeks-long relationship doomed to fail. It’s a societal indictment. It’s about pain and rejection, feelings of not belonging. It’s about what it means to be doubly oppressed.
Director Bonnie Hewitt has led her charges through treacherous waters, and created a well-paced evening at the theater. Lighting Director Mike Thompson makes some bold choices, and the straight-to-pitch-black transitions contribute to the play’s cinematic elements. Ashley Graves’s set design is simple; the stage is almost completely empty, save for four black chairs and an ottoman, forming a small triangle at the start and soon changing to a square configuration, with a chair at each stage corner, the ottoman (and John) at the center for much of the show. An image of blood red origami cranes serves as the backdrop, and a small red crane also sits in each seat as the audience enters. The production makes use of more projections throughout the show, to varying degrees of effectiveness, and it also makes use of sound and music, again to varying degrees of effectiveness.
Yew’s script states that no music or sound effects should be used during the play, yet a selection from Madame Butterfly, the Habanera from Carmen, and some busy city streets sounds play behind some of the scenes. While Bizet’s music certainly helps to ratchet up the tension late in the play, Puccini’s inclusion is completely unnecessary and the city sounds actually hurt the production, as they drown out some of the important, quick-fire expository dialogue that opens the play. Less background noise and fewer projections in that opening scene would also have allowed the “Voice” actors to do the work of setting the scene, something in which they are more than capable.
Dain Geist (Voice 1), Tommy Stuart (Voice 2), Alan Brincks (Voice 3) and Michael J. Heard (Voice 4) are something of a chorus to this tragedy. They impress with how skillfully they attack the rhythm and lyricism of Yew’s words and how much humor they mine from a fairly dark play. Geist is also Dr. Worthing, and he manages to make Worthing, a man who’s apparently one of the least liked in his profession, quite likable in his own, incredibly flawed way, making Worthing’s scenes with John the most intriguing. As the opportunistically inquisitive Alan White, Brincks is singularly focused and very much a predator. And Stuart stuns in a turn as John’s distraught father. Brincks and Stuart also excel at being John’s inner voices as the play reaches its climax.
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While the other “Voice” actors easily switched between different English accents throughout the show (it is set in London), as the fourth voice and William Hope, the dead man whose relationship with John led to murder, Heard was limited to one voice, which he used no matter the character he played. It was high pitched, and it wasn’t an English accent. Heard did redeem himself, however, with his performance in the evening’s most difficult scene, a scene he shared with Bao Quoc Hoang.
Hoang first appears on stage as John Lee dressed in white prison garb and carefully cupping a red origami crane. He’s a still, almost small presence in the eye of a storm. Throughout the production, he is in turns wistful, resentful, resigned and thoroughly heartbreaking. His loneliness and vulnerability are palpable as is his anguish.
Porcelain is an ambitious project that works in several key ways, including a couple of great performances that are sometimes overshadowed. The lesson? Maybe trust the play. Stick to the directives and don't pile music and so many low-res projections on top.
Performances continue through August 26 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and August 13; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 832-656-8380 or visit thecaduceustheater.com. $22 to $30.