November 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
Lives overlapping

‘The Golden Dragon’
Through Dec. 11
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, NW

The cast of ‘The Golden Dragon.’ (Photo courtesy Studio)

When the rotten tooth of a newly arrived Asian immigrant employed at a Chinese restaurant in a European city can land in the steamy soup of a sleepy flight attendant who has stopped by for a late bite after completing an eighteen hour flight home from South America, there is little question that the world has become an increasingly interconnected place.

With “The Golden Dragon,” Germany’s most-produced playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig makes the concept of globalization relatable by overlapping the tough lives of economic refugees with those who live (sometimes literally) on top of them but never really see them. While a lot of what Schimmelpfennig portrays is very comic, he’s also not afraid to reveal the seamier side of a shrinking planet whose people meet on a less-than-even playing field.

At 80 minutes, this funny/disturbing work is centered on the lives of those who live and toil in one particular urban building. Through deftly drawn, quick paced, surprising scenes, various stories unfold. On the first floor there’s a Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant (the Golden Dragon). In its tiny kitchen five Asians busily turn out various dishes whose ingredients — ginger, chicken, button mushrooms, etc. — they mechanically pronounce aloud. Occasionally the youngest among them howls in pain from a horrendous toothache. Because he’s an undocumented worker with no money, a dentist is out of the question. Instead, the kitchen’s male elder addresses the problem with a pair of red-handled pliers.

In the apartments above the Golden Dragon other dramas play out: A straight couple’s marriage hits the rocks hard; an old man mourns the loss of his youth and virility; a young couple deals with an unwanted pregnancy; and a creepy shopkeeper tragically shares his Asian sex slave.

For this tight and well executed Studio Theatre production (the play’s U.S. premiere), gay director Serge Seiden brings together an especially diverse cast of three men and two women who cross age, race and gender to play 16 characters. Using a few props (including woks and spatulas) and minimal costumes (paper hats and hand bags), they adroitly move and switch roles through the play’s many brief-but-often-intense scenes. The phenomenal pacing and precise staging isn’t easy, but for press matinee the talented ensemble was definitely on point, working together as if the show were much further into its five-week run.

Local favorite Sarah Marshall (who’s gay) effectively plays a wide range of characters from maternal old cook to sleazy middle-aged man. Also featured are Amir Darvish (well known for playing the late gay rock star Freddie Mercury in an acclaimed off-Broadway one-man show), Joseph Anthony Foronda, KK Moggie and Chris Myers.

The design team is terrific too. Michael Giannitti’s lighting ingeniously alters Debra Booth’s gray blank slate set. At one point, he recreates that specific lighting found on a transatlantic flight when most passengers are still asleep and someone opens their window shade, allowing a stream of glaring morning sun to enter the cabin; and later he captures the nocturnal glow of the street lamp seen from a darkened apartment.

Though set in Europe, Schimmelpfennig’s play is, of course, entirely relevant here too. His writing and Seiden’s fine production are both thought provoking and not easily forgotten.

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