'Porcelain' mixes violence, humor

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By Chay Yew, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton. Northwest Asian American Theatre, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle. Thursdays-Sundays through July 1. 206-325-6500.

John Lee blows away his lover in a squalid London urinal - and we're supposed to sympathize? Chay Yew's gritty, violent play "Porcelain" has won a fistful of awards partly because we can.

Now receiving its Northwest premiere production at the Northwest Asian American Theatre, where author Chay Yew is the new artistic director, "Porcelain" tells Lee's story in "a heap of broken images" - snatches of news footage, shouted headlines, bits of his prison-cell conversation with his incompetent shrink.

Maybe this fracturing matches his mental state ... or only that of his accusers. Lee, brilliantly portrayed by Ray Tagavilla, seems paradoxical but far from confused. He's fragile yet poised, an exceptionally smart, articulate young man who plays comical cat-and-mouse with his slow-witted shrink.

Tagavilla actually gets to do very little: Most of the play, he sits on the floor, smiling seraphically while he folds paper cranes. And you can't keep your eyes off him.

The multitude of other characters are played by an strong team of just four other actors (Gavin Cummins, Brandon Whitehead, Conor Duffy and P. Adam Walsh). There's too much stereotyping here, but some of it is very funny and all of it is, within its limits, convincing.

The chameleon quality of one or two of the actors is entertainment in itself.

And far beyond stereotype is Lee's doomed lover, Will (Walsh), a burly working-class Brit who lets Lee live with him despite being "absolutely not gay!"

Will is a thoroughly three-dimensional foil to his naive young Asian plaything.

Eschewing an intermission, and managing an odd combination of pace and calm, director Valerie Curtis-Newton has coaxed from these five actors 90 minutes of vivid, memorable theater.

You might argue, perhaps, with the sheer raucousness of some scenes, which detract from the one brutal scene (not the murder) that demands such emotional volume.

But the deft switching between characters, and between the "back story" and John in his cell, carry things forward convincingly. The scenic design by Craig B. Wollam focuses the mind wonderfully: A black U-shaped ramp surrounds a black-tiled pit that is both John's cell and a darkly comic negative image of the murder scene.

This isn't for all tastes. Potential viewers should be warned that, despite its moments of humor, "Porcelain" is a harrowing story, with extremely strong language, sexual explicitness and violence.