Mid-1980s London: the height of the global AIDS crisis when celebrity role models such as Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury and gender-bending performer Boy George created space for homosexual young men to consider taking a few tentative steps out of the closet. At the same time, socioeconomic, cultural and familial acceptance were nascent enough concepts to render the struggle for physical and emotional safety a threat to personal freedom. And in a Western Hemisphere just waking up to the LGBT community hiding in plain sight, how much more complicated the issues for immigrants, already branded as “other?”
Into this knotty blend of history, sociology and human rights wades Prologue Theatre Company’s 2014-2015 season-ending production of “Porcelain,” directed by Matthew Ozawa. On a small stage, boasting a minimalist cast of five, Chay Yew’s 1992 work comes to colorful, violent, visceral life through the 21st Century prism of expanding marriage equality and a deep vein of xenophobia and nativism that runs through “enlightened” Western cultures.
Press materials accurately distill the plot as such: “Triply scorned — as an Asian, a homosexual, and now a murderer — 19 year-old John Lee [Scott Shimizu] has confessed to shooting his lover in a public lavatory.” The material knowingly leverages limited incidental suspense to examine a much larger mystery.
Yes, the audience is aware that John is guilty. But how does his particular brew of racial, sexual and personal isolation lead to a powerlessness that can only be defeated (in his mind) through a shocking act of human destruction?
Shimizu commands the stage as John, a lonely student who goes “cottaging (defined as anonymous sex in public bathrooms)” to assuage an unsatisfied need for physical and emotional connection. As the play makes clear, well before he became a murderous media sensation, John faced rejection from the Chinese immigrant community, gay society and even himself.
More than once as John shares his story with a prison psychiatrist, he uses the word “hate” to describe his tortured feelings about his appearance and the lifelong odyssey to find a place where he belongs. Shimizu’s performance is at once utterly sympathetic, unhinged and desperate. Exactly right.
A talented supporting cast uniformly gifted with the ability to slip quickly and seamlessly into the skins of representative London (TV presenters, old women, Chinese laborers and more) makes Shimuzu’s headlining work all the more successful. Cory Hardin, Scott Olson, Graham Emmons and Colin Sphar are a barbershop quartet of onomatopoeia, paparazzi flash, ethnic and social judgment rolled up into the screaming soundtrack of John’s consciousness. Without their strong, emotional work, John’s descent into identity hysteria would lack the necessary urgency.
The color red, origami and an ancient Chinese parable about a misfit crow follow John through the beginning, middle and end of his stage journey — storytelling devices that are both symbolic and literal. Red, representing both luck and death: origami an emblem of creativity and ruminating madness; the crow equally foreign at home and abroad.
These elements are woven into a beautiful but inevitably painful tapestry that unravels in tandem with John’s opportunity to assimilate. Even in prison, he is segregated via solitary confinement. And yet the murder, an act that permanently severs John from community of any type, may be the only powerful and deliberate choice of his life. It’s a willfully uncomfortable idea that both the material and Shimuzu’s performance force audiences to consider.
Running roughly 90 minutes with no intermission, Prologue Theatre’s “Porcelain” has a lot to say with no wasted words or fillers. Due to adult content including a rather graphic sexual assault, the production is decidedly adults only. It’s a chilling, thought-provoking piece worth placing on your early summer calendar.
“Porcelain” runs through July 15 at Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Greenhouse Theatre website.