The Golden Dragon

It started with just a simple toothache…and then everything went wrong. Studio Theatre’s tense, darkly comic production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon follows disparate lives forever changed by a single random event. It’s an arresting allegory for the turmoil plaguing our increasingly intertwined global community. 

(l to r) KK Moggie, Sarah Marshall, and Joseph Anthony Foronda (Photo: Scott Suchman)

The Golden Dragon is set primarily in the kitchen of a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant, where five employees prepare meals for patrons and inhabitants of the attached apartment complex. More characters are introduced, and the action oscillates rapidly between kitchen, apartments, and a nearby grocery store. After a minor tooth extraction sets in motion an unexpected chain of causality, the characters’ threads begin to entwine as the tiny universe of the kitchen is rocked to its core.

Schimmelpfennig crafts his personae from familiar stereotypes, yet he blurs their edges to allow for narrative flexibility. The characters, like the vague setting, could be drawn from almost anywhere, which underscores the tragic nature of the play’s events. They are, generally, not monsters or miscreants, but instead rather ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. As the play progresses, each character presents a facade of familiarity, only to jar the audience from their comfortable blanket of preconceptions with outbursts of black humor or shocking aggression.

Director Serge Seiden massages the seesaw of comedy and violence into a sustained tension that is simultaneously captivating and well nigh unbearable.

Seiden’s casting transcends conventions of age, gender, and race, and the ensemble revels in the resulting visual contradictions. Sarah Marshall anchors the dramatic business with, among others, a powerful turn as a young girl, and an alcoholic shopkeeper. Her expressive eyes offer a window to a crackling energy that radiates just below the surface and occasionally threatens to fill the entire stage.

KK Moggie and Amir Darvish (Photo: Scott Suchman)

KK Moggie excels in her dual roles as a young Chinese boy with a toothache and a bitter, cuckolded husband. Moggie proves equally convincing in moments of endearing innocence and unsettling inhumanity.  Amir Darvish’s toned physique belies the disarming sensitivity displayed by his varied interpretations of two women standing at emotional crossroads. Joseph Anthony Foronda and Chris Myers complete the ensemble with assured outings as a young man dealing with the prospect of fatherhood and an old man grappling with the ravages of age.

The stripped down visual design underscores the almost amorphous nature of the narrative and characters. Debra Booth’s spartan stage and backdrop, dotted by simple props and chairs, offer few clues as to location or time, leaving the actors largely to their own devices to set the scene. Michael Giannitti’s subtle lighting effectively punctuates scene shifts and emotional beats while largely staying out of the way of the cast’s absorbing acting.

The physical effects that accompany the violence, both seen and implied, comprise perhaps the most divisive element of the play. Much like the recent film “Drive,” The Golden Dragon offers a dreamy, poetic ride punctuated by sudden splashes of gore. Several theatergoers appeared to be quite disturbed, whispering about the necessity of such graphic effects.

Ultimately, however, the play’s overall impact would just not be the same absent the considerable amounts of blood. With his over-the-top effects, Seiden has succeeded in crafting an unforgettable string of images. Even now, the juxtaposition of red handprints and clean white  t-shirts is still stuck, like a knife, deep in my brain.

The Golden Dragon is a disquieting, darkly funny drama that will shake even the most hardened viewers from their seats. It’s not for the faint of heart, but those brave enough will be rewarded with a singular theatrical experience.

The Golden Dragon is scheduled to run thru Dec 11, 2011 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.

The Golden Dragon

By Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Serge Seiden
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers

Highly Recommended

Running Time: 1 hr, 20 mins (no intermission)

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Comments

  1. Your analysis of “The Golden Dragon” is intelligent and fair. Certainly this production has a lot going for it, especially the acting. Until seeing this play, I had never heard of the contemporary German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. Perhaps that is why my take is a bit different.

    Loosely a round, “The Golden Dragon” partially narrates and partially acts out several stories centered on the kitchen of an oriental restaurant somewhere in the West and the insect-like warren (spare apartments, a convenience store) surrounding it. As in other recent productions of the play, men play women, women play men, stage directions (“pause,” “slight pause”) are read aloud, scenes are cross-cut cinematically, one character brutalizes another in an interior monologue, ants brutalize a cricket, and a Chinese family communicates with their undocumented son through images in the space left by the extraction of his decayed right incisor. Amateur dentistry performed live onstage conclusively proves, as Julia Child once asserted, that dinner guests never know what goes on in the kitchen.
    The point of all this, as I see it, isn’t to draw viewers into an identification with the characters: resolution isn’t what Schimmelpfennig is about, the fourth wall stays firmly in place, the blood is always clearly stage blood, many of the scenes go well beyond what I would call dreamy. Instead the characters are abstracted. The cuckolded husband in the striped shirt stands, in some sense, for all men. The sexless cricket stands, in some sense, for all women. Poverty and the state, through its immigration laws, dehumanize the Chinese kitchen worker as though this were agitprop. With each scene, the viewer is invited simply to observe and react. In this sense “The Golden Dragon” is reminiscent of another German theater piece, Peter Handke’s 1966 “anti-play” “Offending the Audience.” Like the Handke, it rejects the traditional notion of theater, instead encouraging the audience to reflect on the idea of theater itself.
    As noted, the acting in this production is excellent. The spare costumes, lighting, and props are fine. However, the separation of stage from audience that Schimmelpfennig deliberately creates may be off-putting to some. This play will not please everyone.  But, of course, neither does “Hamlet.”
     

  2. Several interesting points – the dehumanizing effect of immigration policy is particularly intriguing and relevant. I’d heard of Offending the Audience previously, but now I have all the more reason to seek it out. 

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