BWW Review: PORCELAIN bravely cruises at The Caduceus Theater Arts Company
PORCELAIN is a brave production for The Caduceus Theater Arts Company, a piece about a gay Asian man who has killed his boyfriend inside a public toilet in London. It is set in the early 90s evoking the world of homosexual cruising during an era where AIDS was a death sentence and public sex was flirting with your own demise. You could be arrested or infected with an illness that at the time had almost no tolerable treatment options. This is an intense drama exploring the depths of a man who feels ostracized by a group that is already shunned by society. It's a play about loneliness and deathwishes that spiral out of control. At the core it is a hard look at someone who is an outsider in every single way, and who can never find his place no matter where he searches.
Chay Yew's work was first produced back in 1992 when the world of gay men was hidden far more underground than what it is in our current day and age. PORCELAIN feels like a period piece since it deals with activities that have been replaced by mobile applications and the Internet. But back in the day, "cottaging" or "tea rooms" referred to public bathrooms where men sought anonymous sex with other men on the regular. I am sure it felt revolutionary when it premiered, a salacious peek inside a world few knew about. The irony is that it will seem as foreign to younger LGBTQIA audience as it will to their straight counterparts.
PORCELAIN is presented in a stylized way, with a simple stool and four chairs onstage and a video screen behind the actors which establishes different places in London. Bao Quoc Hoang is front and center in all white playing an Asian man accused of murder. Surrounding him are four male actors in black who act as both Greek chorus as well as every other character in the show. We mainly see the psychologist sessions the accused has with his court appointed doctor, and then later re-enactment of the relationship and crime. Because of the nature of the structure and all the psychoanalysis scenes this feels like an Asian version of EQUUS in many ways.
Bonnie Hewett directs, and Houston audiences may recall her from a significant tenure at The Queensbury Theatre. She manages to keep the rather sparse space alive with frenetic blocking and constant movement with her all-male cast. These guys are choreographed well, and she's also coached them into honest and raw portrayals that at the same time have a wonderful sense of the abstract.
Three of the four voices seem to be the loudest and strongest - the ones played by Dain Geist, Tommy Stuart and Alan Brincks. These three bring a boisterous physicality along with booming volume and theatrical savvy. They cycle through a ton of different personalities from the media, police, to the infamous shrink handling the case. Dain Geist is excellent when called on to play the doctor who seems to have an internalized homophobia that may just well be a man struggling with his own issues of sexuality. These three do wonderful character work, and often bring in the lighter moments of comedy as well as the enlightening stretches of insight.
By contrast the fourth voice played by Michael J. Heard and the role of John Lee portrayed by Bao Quoc Hoang are softer and far more feminine. Interestingly Hewett has cast Heard to be the abusive lover of the Asian man, and it's a strange counterpoint to the brutishness of the rest of the ensemble. They are both soft spoken and fey which works in the tenderest of moments, but sometimes makes the violence that erupts less impactful. But perhaps this is what Hewett intends to show the audience - the feminine mystique and romance of something inside such a hard male world. They are well partnered in tone, but one wonders what if we had shuffled some of the harder edge of the other actors into these key sequences.
Kudos to Asian actor Bao Quoc Hoang who finds this being his first time on the stage acting. He ablely comes up to the theatrical pros around him by ditching technique and simply being himself. He allows his sweet nature to bubble out, and that makes PORCELAIN work for this production. He is the man with at least two strikes in the gay world - he is femme, he is Asian. He feels real, and we know why he would be so frustrated with his lot in life. It is a fine performance that he should be quite proud of.
PORCELAIN is a heightened theatrical experience thanks to the four voices, and then grounded in reality thanks to its lead actor. It's an interesting juxtaposition to see these two elements come together so well for an evening of theater. It deals with dangerous intriguing material since it is set in the era of casual sex for gay men in big cities. But yet at the core what makes PORCELAIN tick is the portrait of loneliness that is as haunting as the hundreds of red cranes scattered around the set, the theater, and the stage. This one is well worth seeking out as one of the most unique and graceful theater works you will see this summer in Houston.
PORCELAIN runs at the MATCH Theater Center through August 26th. Tickets can be purchased through their website at https://matchouston.org/ . More information on the company and the show can be found at www.thecaduceustheater.com .