‘Golden Dragon’ at Studio Theatre

November 8, 2011

“Drama’s vitallest expression is the common day,” poet Emily Dickinson wrote. It’s a sentiment that contemporary German dramatist Roland Schimmelpfennig takes to heart in his writing, notably in “The Golden Dragon,” his kaleidoscopic if somewhat preciously whimsical play about lives of quiet desperation that is having its U.S. premiere at Studio Theatre.

The work takes as its central focus the immigrant workers in the cramped, stifling kitchen of a Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese fast-food joint. In 80 minutes, Schimmelpfennig serves up his own fusion style of storytelling, anchored in the idea that there are epiphanies and tragedies to be tallied in the humblest of circumstances.

Presenting the play on a set as empty and white as a fresh piece of paper, director Serge Seiden marshals his cast of five to animate the playwright’s intermingling of absurdism, lyricism, naturalism and folk tale. As the laborers slave over their woks, Schimmelpfennig does his own tossing of the stew, apportioning male roles to actresses and elderly parts to young performers, and having the actors articulate not only their lines but also the pauses in them.

In fracturing basic narrative rules, in reassigning identities, the playwright is underlining for us how accidental destiny can be, how experience is interchangeable and, in this modern, migratory world, how inexorably linked we all are.

A pair of flight attendants just off a flight from Santiago, Chile, can wander into an Asian takeout place in some German city and serendipitously become bit players in the story of a Chinese cook and the terrible fallout from his agonizing toothache.

As you might be able to tell, Schimmelpfennig’s imaginative leaps, his eagerness to connect some disparate dots, can take “The Golden Dragon” too pretentiously down the track of shaggy dog story. He’s a fan of humdrum lists: Various characters run down the contents of everything from 24-hour convenience stores to restaurants. And he seems so in the business of keeping an audience guessing — seducing us with light comedy in one scene, shocking us with blood and pain in the next — that the theatricality can come across as contrivance.

Yet something compelling does begin to emerge, as the complexities of the playwright’s linkages multiply. “The Golden Dragon” has an enigmatic allure, in its desire to illuminate sequestered corners of the culture. And with its inventive shape-shifting, the play presents nifty opportunities for protean actors to strut their stuff.

Their transformations often evoke the pleasing payoffs of skilled improv. The multi-ethnic cast — white, black, Asian — is called on to portray the five kitchen workers from China and Vietnam, and they set off on the play’s journey, collectively executing the assembly-line ballet of sending out dishes flavored with pork, rice, cilantro and coconut.

Threaded pivotally through the show is what seems to be the most ordinary of troubles, the toothache suffered by a young cook (KK Moggie), who, we learn, has come to the restaurant from a rural Chinese village, in search of a job and a sister who has disappeared. As his pain intensifies and the other workers debate with varying levels of concern which measures to take for him — his subsistent lifestyle seems to preclude a doctor — Schimmel­pfennig spins another tale: that of an unfeeling ant (Sarah Marshall) who abuses a starving cricket (Chris Myers), who one wintry day comes begging for food.

The cook and the cricket, nameless and penniless, are at the mercy of brutal universes — anthills can be as forbidding as cities — and each meets a fate that affirms the world’s cold shoulder. If it’s all meant allegorically, then the fissures in European life, opened up by the antagonisms toward waves of immigrant workers, are worthily conjured here.

Seiden, a nimble parser of text, has the challenge of guiding the actors through the demands of repeated physical transformation, and for the most part, he succeeds. Some of the actors, though, prove more adept than others at assuming characters of different ages and sex. Some of the best segues are accomplished by the oldest cast members: Marshall and Joseph Anthony Foronda persuasively evolve from grizzled kitchen grunts to young lovers in a flat above the eatery confronting a timeless consequence of passion. And Amir Darvish manages without excess commentary to approximate the grace of a mournful woman in a slinky red dress.

Michael Giannitti’s lighting and sound designer Evan Rogers’s hints of Asian instrumentals are subtle aids for the playwright’s exotic tones. Several years ago, Rorschach Theatre performed another of Schimmelpfennig’s mosaic-plays, “The Arabian Night,” which also documented the social and ethnic cross-currents in a single building. Applying a poetic varnish to these common-day settings, the playwright does at times achieve that vital sort of expression.

The Golden Dragon

by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by David Tushingham. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set, Deb Booth; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Helen Huang; sound, Evan Rogers; dramaturgy, Adrien-Alice Hansel; technical direction, Charlie Olson. About 80 minutes. Through Dec. 11 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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