Theater Review: “The Golden Dragon” at Studio Theatre

Avant-garde German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s look at the realities of immigrant life is brutal, original, and deeply disturbing.

By: Leslie Milk

KK Moggie, Sarah Marshall, and Joseph Anthony Foronda in The Golden Dragon. Photograph by Scott Suchman

☆☆ 1/2 stars out of four

Sometimes I hear about a new restaurant whose chef is a genius with organ meats. I can appreciate the art and creativity that must go into his or her work. But I don’t race out to make a reservation.

That’s just my personal preference. So, too, can I appreciate playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s skill and originality. His play The Golden Dragon, currently running at Studio Theatre, turns a bare stage into the tiny kitchen of a pan-Asian restaurant, where five cooks and helpers produce a dizzying array of dishes for the patrons, many of whom live in the apartment house above the restaurant or nearby.

Directed by Serge Seiden, the ensemble cast—two women and three men—play 16 characters, moving between the back kitchen and the dining room of the restaurant and domiciles that surround it. Men play women, women play men, old play young, and young play old. Schimmelpfennig further tweaks tradition by having stage directions spoken aloud. The first time the actors say “short pause” or “long pause,” it’s surprisingly funny, but the gimmick gets old pretty fast.

This is a play about the unseen exploitation that’s so often tied into immigrant culture. The kitchen of the Golden Dragon is home to an alliance of the overburdened and powerless. When a young Chinese helper has a toothache, he cannot risk or afford a visit to a dentist. The cooks ply him with schnapps, hold him down, and yank out the tooth with pliers. And brutality is rife: When a couple who lives upstairs splits up after the wife admits she’s met another man, the husband gets drunk and beats another woman to a bloody pulp.

Woven throughout is a twisted version of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant—the grasshopper sings the summer away while the ant laboriously works to build up stores for winter. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant refuses to share his bounty. In the play, the ant uses the grasshopper as a prostitute, rents her out to other ants, and charges extra for ants with violent tendencies.

The acting in Golden Dragon is dazzling. Washington’s beloved Sarah Marshall is the one local member of the cast, and watching her wield a wok like a lethal weapon or staggering about the stage as an inebriated shopkeeper is a wonder to behold.

But the play itself is exhausting and unrelenting. The Golden Dragon runs 80 minutes without intermission, and the comic relief is too scarce to offer much relief at all. This is not what I would call comfort food.

The Golden Dragon is at Studio Theatre through December 11. Tickets ($36 to $69) are available through Studio Theatre’s Web site.