We all get so involved in our own lives and dramas, our own cast of characters and backstories and intrigues, that it’s easy to forget all the other lives that are happening around us, each with their own cast and plots. This is especially true in Washington DC, a diverse capital of a diverse nation, where people can be packed on top of each other and still be perfect strangers. “The Golden Dragon“ at the Studio Theatre examines this phenomenon on a micro level: the audience is taken from the kitchen of the titular Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant through the other apartments in the building, touching on the different lives of the people in each space. It’s very well to hear ‘globalization’ and understand it as a concept, but playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig shows what globalization really means on a personal, micro-level, with full awareness of the humor and tragedy of our globalized society.
Directed by Serge Seiden, the production is as sparse as its plot is intricate. The five actors (Chris Myers, Amir Darvish, Joseph Anthony Foronda, KK Moggie, and Sarah Marshall) perform 16 different roles, hopping from one to another with just the adjustment of a scarf or the re-tying of an apron. A cramped and bustling kitchen is created authentically with only a few bowls and cutlery, and the narrow confines of an airplane is created with only two suitcases. This onstage minimalism gives the actors plenty of room to create their characters, and create they certainly do.
The play opens with a wink, as one character announces that we are in the kitchen of the Chinese Thai Vietnamese restaurant, the Golden Dragon, where five Asian people are busy cooking in the cramped space. The actors (only two of whom are of Asian descent) look at each other and shrug, inviting the audience to share in the humor of their taking on characters that they obviously are not. It’s the last time the ethnicities of the actors are directly alluded to, and it quickly is clear that age and gender don’t matter much either. After that first moment of “ha ha, we aren’t who we’re pretending to be,” all self-consciousness is discarded. It comes as no surprise when Amir Darvish slips on a red dress and becomes a wandering wife returning home to her angry and very drunk husband played by KK Moggie, since by that time both actors have taken on various ages, genders, and ethnicities. As Moggie faces Darvish, the reversal of their genders is a tiny afterthought in the back of the mind, and one that is easily ignored as the scene between them plays out. All five actors are masterful in this, in making the reality of the play more believable than that of the audience.
Roland Schimmelpfennig is German’s most-produced playwright, and in 2010 received the Else-Lasker-Schüler Prize, the highest award for German playwrights. The Golden Dragon was awarded the Mühlheimer Dramatists Award and was chosen as Theaterheute‘s Play of the Year in 2010. Even in translation, it’s not hard to see why. The play seems to center around the plight of a young chef with a toothache (played by KK Moggie), but it’s hard to say that that’s what the show is about, when even characters who get only a few lines or so are created with such vibrancy.
Similarly, although the show maintains such a frenetic pace, with scenes being cut off abruptly and quick darts back and forth between characters and storylines, it is all done with skill. As the play reaches its climax, the swirl of characters and stories comes together in an amazing “ah-ha” moment of heartbreaking and brilliant clarity. Some of Schimmelpfennig’s style is hard to get used to, as the fourth wall of a play is stripped away (characters announce pauses rather than leaving them unspoken, for example, and speak aloud parts that are more commonly left in the stage directions), but the skill of the actors and the uncluttered stage makes up for any such discomfort.
Knowing that the play was written by a German playwright, I was expecting something much more… well, Germanic. But in all things, from the set to the characters to the situations, “The Golden Dragon” could take place anywhere in the world. And that’s exactly the point. The Golden Dragon Chinese Thai Vietnamese restaurant could be in Berlin or Washington DC, and probably in any major city around the world. Which is something every one of us knows, of course. What makes “The Golden Dragon” an amazing exploration of that idea is that it takes the abstract and makes it real: with real people, real tragedy, real comedy and a really amazing play.
WHEN: Running through December 11th, 2011
The Studio Theatre
1501 14th St NW
TICKETS: from $35 to $69. Order by calling 202-332-3300 or online here.