The story is simple, but the story telling, not so much. We watch as a kitchen worker writhes in pain from a rotting tooth. The solution is to remove the tooth. The tooth pops out and and pops into someone’s soup. Comedy and drama ensue. But the simple plot is not really the point. The Golden Dragon is about the people in and around the restaurant. It’s the story of our global and sometimes brutal culture: whether it’s Los Angeles, New York, or Berlin (which is where the author, Roland Schimmelpfennig lives and writes). The play transcends boundaries of location and manages to transform a small kitchen in a small restaurant into planet Earth. Allegory is the means through which the author traverses the space between the cold harsh reality of the city and the larger, scarier, reality of an uncaring universe that has room for sex trafficking, and that condones the brutality of misogynistic sexual transactions.
Although The Golden Dragon does not inhabit a specific place, it does inhabit a specific time. That time is now; Schimmelpfennig has given us a vivid snapshot of our own world: the cityscape that we traverse, and that we mostly do not see in all of its inhumanity and cruelty. The author provides us with garish insight into our world through the vehicle of epic theatre transmuted through the lens of what I can only describe as magic-realism. The poetry of the piece is interrupted, re-directed, repeated, and highlighted by the techniques of alienation theatre, but the beauty of the allegory propels us through the story.
This production is an ensemble effort. It’s impressive that it works so well considering how many pieces there are to this puzzle. The lighting alone could have crippled the piece if Elizabeth Harper had not been ever-cognizant of Michael Michetti’s direction and vision for the show. As it was, however, the lighting design was integral to the tone and flow of the production. The lighting reinforced, and sometimes created, the epic effect. The harsh side lights, the fluorescent lights, lights from below, the harsh transitions: these techniques were used at times to pull us out of the comfort of the drama, and at times used to increase the dramatic effect. The lighting was integral to the storytelling, as was the sound design.
The Golden Dragon would have been a different play, and a much poorer play were it not for the ever-present sound design of John Nobori—sound worked in concert with lighting to punctuate the flow of the text while strengthening, or often deciding, the tone of the production. Scaffold to create the scenic space was an efficient and non-intrusive means for story-telling. Sometimes it is true that ‘less is more,’ and this was one of those situations. The possibility that the actors might eventually climb the scaffold was ever-present. When it finally happened, it worked perfectly. Kudos to Sara Ryung Clement for working out a seemingly simple staging solution.
The ensemble effort is seen most clearly in the cast. Five actors portray a variety of characters: men are played by women, women by men, young characters by old actors and old characters by young actors. This is no small challenge, and the entire cast rises to the task. Life experience informs an actor’s ability to inhabit a role, and this is reflected in the performances of some of the more seasoned performers. The entire cast is very capable, but because of the structure of the play (a series of brief scenes) the actors are required to reveal so much—with a mere sentence or a gesture. Joseph Kamal and Theo Perkins are both able to find these moments of clarity throughout their performances, and are particularly striking in their portrayals of female flight attendants. In turn, each of these gentlemen is able to find the humanity in a character who seems hopelessly at odds to the male actor portraying her. These casting choices, by the way, are written into the script, and the integrity of the show hinges on whether the actors can pull it off honestly. They do. Mr. Perkins, in particular, is masterful as the young woman fascinated by the tooth she finds in her soup.
Boston Court should be applauded for bringing meaningful, socially relevant drama to Pasadena. With The Golden Dragon, Michael Michetti delivers a top-notch production that works seamlessly to examine the social disparity and moral decay in contemporary society. Did I mention that it’s a comedy?
The Golden Dragon
Through Sunday, June 5th, times vary
The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena 91106
Wednesday, June 1st, 8 p.m. is $5 night; find details here
For more info, visit BostonCourt.com/events/293/the-golden-dragon