Larry Pine, Tina Chen, and Marcus Ho
in The Shanghai Gesture
(© Carol Rosegg)
Larry Pine, Tina Chen, and Marcus Ho
in The Shanghai Gesture
(© Carol Rosegg)
It's easy to see why John Colton's 1918 play The Shanghai Gesture, now receiving a rare if imperfect revival at the Julia Miles Theater, was so controversial in its time. Not only does it level a critique of what would have been current-day imperialistic practices by Western nations within China, it also confronts head-on issues of prostitution, abuse, and racial miscegenation. And then of course, there's the scene in which a white girl is auctioned off to a group of horny Chinese coolies for use as a sexual slave.

The play itself is a potent mixture of melodrama and Greek tragedy, but despite the provocative nature of the piece, Mirror Repertory Company's presentation (seen here in an adaptation by Marsha Sheiness) never quite blazes to life. This is in large part due to the somewhat tentative performance delivered by Tina Chen in the central role of Mother Goddamn. She never fully commanded the stage in the way that her character needs to, but might be able to do so as the run progresses.

Mother Goddamn runs an elegant brothel, and is highly regarded by both the authorities and by the Western businessmen and dignitaries in Shanghai, as she knows the secrets that could topple them all. The power she holds and her use of it are of more than passing interest, as she occupies a social position that would seem to be disadvantageous, but the character's cunning and will to survive has made it one of strength. On the fateful night depicted within the play, she has convened a dinner party to exact revenge on a man who did her a grievous wrong many years prior. The guests include the arrogant Sir Guy Charteris (Larry Pine, oozing a slickly manufactured charm), Japanese prince Oshima (the suavely elegant Marcus Ho), her one-time benefactor Koo Lot Foo (played with a surface bluster by John Haggerty), and many more.

Not at the dinner, but also playing crucial roles within the piece are Poppy (a vibrant Sabrina Veroczi), an English girl that Oshima brings with him to Mother Goddamn's establishment; Cesar Hawkins (endearingly portrayed by Richard B. Watson), Mother Goddamn's right-hand man; and Lin Chi (Rob Yang, seeming out of place in a rather bad wig), who is referenced at one point as being the source of Mother Goddamn's intimate knowledge of everyone's secrets. There are several twists and turns in the plot, some of which are telegraphed in an obvious fashion, while others come as more of a surprise.

The action unfolds on Michael Anania's striking set, dominated by a blood-red staircase, with vertical poles in the back that are suggestive of a cage. However, director Robert Kalfin doesn't use the possibilities the setting offers as well as he might, with too much of the blocking seeming static and unimaginative. Perhaps most unfortunately, the pacing of this two-and-a-half hour production is often slow-moving, which makes for an evening that feels every bit as long as it really is -- and maybe even longer.