Stage review: Quantum's 'Golden Dragon' satisfies adventurous appetite
Gregory Johnstone, left, Curtis Jackson, Catherine Moore, Mark Conway Thompson and Aidaa Peerzada play a variety of characters including workers at a Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese restaurant in Quantum Theatre's "The Golden Dragon," at Lake Carnegie in Highland Park.
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Looked at one way, "The Golden Dragon" is magic, and magic doesn't have to have meaning, right? It isn't supposed to be explained, just admired and enjoyed. Explanations spoil the magic.
From another, I could compare "Golden Dragon," which is the name of a restaurant where the play mainly takes place, to a meal at just such a Chinese restaurant (caricature alert!), the kind, no matter with what array of exotic flavors and savors, leaves little substance other than the fading memory of something enjoyed.
In a third way, most simply but ultimately most complex, Roland Schimmelpfennig's "Golden Dragon" is Quantum Theatre's latest unusual journey, opening us up to a different kind of theater, in this case, nonrealistic, maybe neo-expressionist, magical or, to put it simply, contemporary German.
There is also, of course, the more literal "journey," which is always part of the Quantum fun: finding the venue, because Quantum always performs in a different and differently appropriate place. This one is in Highland Park right on the edge of Lake Carnegie (where I come from we'd call it a pond), so from the bank of seats you look over a small acting area to the water and steep hill of trees beyond -- lovely and surprisingly fitting.
It's surprising because the play takes place primarily in the kitchen of a restaurant in a European city and in various apartments in the building above, not beside a lake at all. It's a Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese restaurant, as is repeatedly pointed out, making it vaguely generic, as is the repeated scene of the five kitchen workers crammed into a few square feet under intense pressure to spit out a dizzying array of numbered specials.
But the unusual setting is fitting because of the breathtaking moments it makes possible, as ripples in the water take the stage light or when characters move away from us on a pier that extends across the lake toward a silent building front. Looming in the distance, gradually lit as the day darkens around us, it shines with enigma. The pier has side extensions, too, and amplification brings the voices clearly across the lake.
Although many characters are Asian, the five actors who play them are non-Asian, as the German playwright specifies, perhaps to make it more universal or to complicate our response or out of simple playfulness, not that Mr. Schimmelpfennig's contra-naturalism is ever simple or the subject matter always playful.
Gradually we meet a variety of characters and several story lines develop. In the kitchen itself, one worker has a toothache that gets worse and worse, eventually revealing ... well, another world. Other stories involve two female flight attendants, a girl and a grandfather, two lovers, another older couple, a happy-go-lucky cricket and an industrious ant (which turns brutal soon enough) and a pack-rat grocer. Some story lines merge with others. There are elements of sexual slavery -- I wouldn't take the kids.
Death enters, but I wouldn't call it a tragedy. I thought of the River Styx, perhaps inappropriately. After you've seen it, stop me on the street so we can talk.
The actors are listed simply as Man (Gregory Johnstone), Young Woman and Man (Aidaa Peerzada and Curtis Jackson) and Woman and Man Over Sixty (Catherine Moore and Mark Conway Thompson). Each plays several roles. A pretty waitress and two flight attendants are played by men and various men by women, young by old, etc. Call it Brechtian alienation or a way to focus the story.
All have scenes in which they excel and others that ring somewhat flat, as the unusual nature of the storytelling may make inevitable. The lovely Ms. Peerzada has a longish, difficult stretch near the end. About two-thirds of the way through, the 85 minutes begin to drag, but by the end it doesn't feel long at all: On the whole, director Karla Boos and her usual Quantum wizards surprise us and keep it fresh. There's also atmospheric music, seemingly arising from the water itself.
Rethinking what I said earlier, "Golden Dragon" does leave behind more substance than that caricature of a Chinese meal. And who beside Quantum is bringing us such theater, or would?
First Published August 8, 2012 12:00 am