Set in the kitchen of a Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese fast food takeout in a Western metropolis, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon spelunks into one of the great social fissures created by 20th-century globalization and shines a miner’s light on what Berlin critic Christopher Schmidt calls “the parallel world of migrants who, condemned to the catacombs of prosperity, provide for the needs of our lower bodies as kitchen coolies or sex slaves.” The play revolves around a crisis in the cramped, hot kitchen: the “new kid,” a Chinese boy, has an unbearable toothache caused by a rotting tooth. A visit to the dentist is, of course, out of the question: he does not have his legal papers and couldn’t afford dental treatment even if he did. The other cooks’ decision to yank the tooth with a pair of pliers has fatal consequences for the boy, while his tooth begins its own journey, via a bowl of soup, into the mouth of a European flight attendant, and, from there, at the end of the play, into the river — where, as it disappears, she observes that “it was as if it had never been there at all.”
In Quantum Theatre’s production of the play, the tooth joins a series of illuminated takeout food containers that have been tossed to float on the surface of Lake Carnegie in Highland Park. The metaphor of takeout food is an apt one—as each dish is frisbee’d onto the water in “delivery” to a customer, its name and ingredients list are called out, and it is as if hundreds of years of specific Asian foodways are being thrown aside in the frenzy of globalization and hybridization. It’s no accident that the takeout restaurant is a Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese—it’s a sardonic comment on both geographic illiteracy and on the West’s desire to have the whole world (of culinary, if not other, delights) at our disposal and for our convenience. That this restaurant is just below an apartment/storehouse that serves up Asian delicacies of a very different (and much more unsavory) variety is an apropos contrivance, moving us to make connections between the exploitation and consumption of both cultures and peoples, and to reflect on the economic and social pressures that prompt migration (both legal and illegal) and bring foreign cultures within the reach of our “purchase” and insatiable appetites.
Schimmelpfennig makes use of a fractured, third-person narrative to tell his tale, in some places to better effect than others (where it can be a drag on the action). Parallel to the story of the boy’s tooth run two other narratives, one of which—the fable of an ant who forces a cricket to work for her food—gradually weaves itself into the real world of the play, until the cricket takes the tragic shape of a Chinese sex slave (the play’s mature subject matter makes it unsuitable for children). There are a number of other magical realist elements in the play, not least of which involves the casting—all of the characters are portrayed by actors whose own sex, race, or age don’t match the naturalistic requirements of the role. This has a disorienting effect, and I choose that term quite deliberately, for it seems that Schimmelpfennig’s goal with this work is to, quite literally, “dis-orient” the audience (in every sense that word conjures), and perhaps “re-orient” our thinking about how we engage what we define as an “other.”
The site specific setting works beautifully for the play, and set designer Tony Ferrieri has done a nice job of using a small number of eloquent prop pieces to establish different scenes and locations (although in certain scenes the height of the set caused a sightline problem for action in the deep background of the space). C. Todd Brown’s lighting design alternately expands and contracts the outdoor space, and Joe Pino’s soundscape meshes in surprising and delightful ways with the sounds of real nature in the surrounding park. Susan Tsu’s costumes evoke both the rich, differentiated cultures the cooks have left behind and the “kitchen coolie” world into which they’ve landed. Director Karla Boos has achieved the neat trick of making the production simultaneously sharp and lyrical, and her staging, which often suddenly shifts perspective and scale, mirrors in three dimensions the fracturing effect of Schimmelpfennig’s writing. The excellent ensemble (Gregory Johnstone, Aidaa Peerzada, Curtis Jackson, Catherine Moore, and Mark Conway Thompson) uses movement, gesture, and repetition effectively to distinguish character, establish the dynamics of space and time, and take us on a poignant exploration of the lives of the “disposable.”