By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The program for Kitchen Dog Theatre's latest production, the racial-sexual drama Porcelain, contains some astute notes by director David Irving, who is the newest member of Kitchen Dog. His essay reads:
"'Shocking plays' always seem to raise a question of validity in people's minds, as though the plays want to be shocking more than anything else. Often the response is a shake of the head, perhaps a sigh, and some employment of the phrase, 'done for shock value.' I note this because Porcelain is such a play: murder, public sex, crimes of passion are the stuff of controversy here. Of course, they are also the stuff of your average news broadcast these days, but for some reason, news has been granted more permission to shock than the arts have."
That last line, in particular, is a startling defense from a live-performance artist, a welcome acknowledgement that there is a big wide world beyond the footlights, and an implied proposal for how theater might re-establish its connection to that world. For years now, the most cultish defenders of American theater have worn that institution's dwindling audiences as a perverse symbol of pride. The live stage is an exclusive haven for the imagination, they insist, impervious to the crude influence that movies, TV, and other mass media have wrought on larger society. More often than not, this has been a clumsy rhetorical shell game to obscure the fact that breadwinners like Andrew Lloyd Webber depend on the extra-media dabblings of well-heeled ticket buyers to provide their shows a box-office hook.
When you turn to successful anti-commercial playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Erik Ehn, or Mac Wellman, the defense becomes more catholic, but essentially the same: We Are An Exclusive Club Comprised of People Who Like Us. All three of these writers have created remarkable individual works, but their brazen return to primitive theatrical devices has sent supporters scurrying for excuses--to present to outsiders who equate small audiences with failure. Can theater--performance art notwithstanding--survive without acknowledging (and co-opting) more populist, Information Age methods? Should it?
More than any of the aforementioned writers (except, perhaps, Parks), the Los Angeles-based Asian-American playwright Chay Yew has forsaken theatrical purity to pirate mass-market influences intelligently. As a prideful newcomer, Yew keeps one foot on the stage and every other appendage flapping in the windy currents of America's information overload. He sees live performance as an opportunity to capture some of the bugs that might otherwise splatter unnoticed on our collective windshield, and scrutinize them under the pitiless glare that only the stage can provide.
Porcelain is his most famous play, and emblematic of his crazy-quilt approach. It's a multicharacter performance piece, actually, that uses the starkest theatrical components to dissect tabloid sensationalism (in this case, the voracious, Fleet Street-inspired reporters of contemporary London) while it illuminates the desperate lives that languish behind headlines.
Chay Yew wrote Porcelain as a chorus of voices, and the Kitchen Dog production conjures up a white-noise cacophony of radio and TV announcers whose merciless declarations begin and end the play. A working-class Englishman is murdered in a public toilet by an Asian who, upon his arrest, claims to have been the man's jilted lover. They met because both were frequent cruisers at the same lavatory.
The events leading up to and surrounding the murder are methodically reconstructed in flashback as the accused, John Lee (Ryan Kim), is interviewed by a criminal psychologist (Ray Gestaut) whose heart is clearly with his mates down at the pub. The psychologist, in turn, is interviewed for a TV exclusive by an aggressive reporter who's continually on the hunt for red meat to feed his sensation-starved viewers.
Distorted shadows projected on a screen, flashlights in darkness, a quartet of black-clothed "voices" that both comment on and participate in the tragedy--these are the timeless theatrical ingredients employed to tell this story. And yet Porcelain is impressive as it uses these ingredients to simulate the heedless rush of images and sounds that speed past everyone who's stalled on the information superhighway--and, in a sense, that's pretty much all of us.
Sadly, given the explosive material in Yew's play, most of the performers don't rise to the occasion. In the pivotal role of John Lee, Ryan Kim peddles plenty of attitude during his discussions with the psychologist, but can't seem to convey the muddy undercurrent of loss and outrage that flows beneath his character. He is convincing as a racial pariah in a world that (contrary to public relations) often shuns difference, but he doesn't parlay his bitterness into a testimonial of genuine depth. As a character screwed by his slanted eyes and same-sex affections, John Lee comes across as little more than a club kid too proud of his outlaw features to fathom the enormity of his rejection.
As the wily, hard-drinking psychologist who finally connects with his subject, Ray Gestaut provides a much trickier interpretation. Close your eyes, and you'll appreciate not only a rich vocal presence--someone who locates the difficult nuances of a mongrel accent (in this case, a Brit who's spent his educational years in America). Watch Gestaut in action, however, and you'll witness a performer who registers each conflict with a stone-faced, squinty-eyed earnestness that bespeaks discomfort with the play's sordid elements.