Stage preview: Quantum Theatre company stages 'Golden Dragon' at Highland Park's Lake Carnegie
Follow the winding Wild Place road past the zoo entrance, then bear left onto Lake Drive, and you're almost there. Just past the Highland Park pool, you arrive at Lake Carnegie, the man-made waterway that is described on the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy website as "stagnant and seldom used, but it is still a pleasant place to stroll."
If you're visiting during August evenings, prepare to sit for a spell.
In recent weeks, the usually serene shore has been abuzz with the sounds of saws and hammers, shouts and whispers that go along with the building of a Quantum Theatre outdoor show.
The found-site company opens its 2012-13 season with "The Golden Dragon" by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig. The play follows five Asian workers in the cramped kitchen of a Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant. Characters morph without regard for age, gender, ethnicity or species and communicate across time and space as a representation of the immigrant experience in an increasingly global community.
Quantum founder and artistic director Karla Boos has gathered the diverse cast of Curtis M. Jackson, Gregory Johnstone, Catherine Moore, Aidaa Peerzada and Mark Conway Thompson. Asked why there are no Asians in the cast, Ms. Boos recalled reading an interview with Mr. Schimmelpfennig, who was asked the same question when he directed a production in Germany and answered that it was hard to cast Asians in his country.
"I found that to be such an interesting and lame answer," said Ms. Boos. "I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I believe the play is about otherness. Reading other writings by Schimmelpfennig reveals this. It's my belief that he thought it was best explored by not having Asians in the cast. It's just one tip of this iceberg of the exploration of otherness and how we perceive things we interpret to be different, and how in making these judgments we're also defining ourselves."
The script is specific only about the age and genders of the five performers in the work. The nonlinear story and use of stage direction within dialogue are among the ways "The Golden Dragon" bends theatrical tradition into a playground of possibilities. Ms. Boos expects audiences will be reeled in for the journey, which takes dark and tragic turns.
Complicit in her vision are set designer Tony Ferrieri and costume designer Susan Tsu. Both note the Asian vibe of the Lake Carnegie setting, including a bisecting concrete walkway leading to a picturesque wooden shack. The water is calm as characters' lives rock and roil above the surface.
Mr. Ferrieri is the resident set designer of City Theatre whose work is seen in theaters throughout the area. On a scale of 1 to 10, meeting the challenges of a Quantum outdoor show is an 11, he said.
"And this year, there's water," said Mr. Ferrieri, smiling while sitting in a shaded corner of stands built for the show. He points to wooden rafts that expand the concrete walkway as a stage area. "We decided on billets that are used as floating docks. Getting them was the trick because they cost a lot of money."
R.J. Romeo, director of production, found a place that was disposing of exactly what Quantum needed. "He just had to go get them; they came over the mountains to here from the Poconos," Mr. Ferrieri said.
As the play begins, the actors are gathered upstage in a claustrophobic kitchen, with one worker moaning and groaning over a toothache. In an instant, a pot is overturned as a pedestal and the interaction changes entirely.
"It's done discreetly," Ms. Tsu said of the transformations through props and costumes, "so that one piece may indicate a different kind of character. There are 48 scenes, so my job is not to get in the way but enhance what they are doing."
The workers begin the show wearing crisp, white aprons, perhaps as the pure versions of themselves. In one of the transformative phases, lifting the play from the mundane to magical realism, as Ms. Tsu put it, Mr. Schimmelpfennig includes a parable about a cricket and an ant.
"I wanted to give these costumes a sense of a different kind of reality and also to dignify the changes somehow," Ms. Tsu said. "It's very easy for a human wearing a costume that is anthropomorphic to look very silly. So it was important to me that the costume show characteristics -- the ant, for instance, being a worker and a male and aggressive, so there are pants that hopefully will suffice. And the cricket is my own little comment about how Asian cultures have been morphed into one. We have Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese ... we don't really have Japanese, but the cricket is going to be wearing a Japanese kimono."
Ms. Boos described a moment she had just seen in rehearsal, when cast and crew had combined to paint an otherworldly picture. As darkness descended, lighting designer Todd Brown had worked his magic. "The young man who plays the cricket, he's slight, and he stands on a little pot, and the way Todd is lighting it, his colossal shadow is as tall as the hillside on the other side of the lake," she said. "Or it's like, little tiny actors against that shack, and their voices are in your ear. So those elements are a cool manifestation of the layering in the play and in the text."
Lake Carnegie is a layer that has long been in the back of Ms. Boos' mind as a possible setting for a Quantum production. With "The Golden Dragon," everything finally fell into place.
"The water will always remind us of the journey that so many cultures have made to other places to either escape what was at home or to find new lives and new hope in other places," Ms. Tsu said. "It's so beautiful here. Always with Karla, one of the things about the outside performance is, there's near and far, and people can stroll and they can run, and that aspect of what we can do theatrically is really exciting. Also, there are a ton of dragonflies here, even some golden dragonflies, so it's very apt."
First Published August 2, 2012 12:00 am