The Golden Dragon is another astonishing piece of stage writing from Roland Schimmelpfennig, the most-produced playwright in Germany now well on his way to becoming one of Toronto's.
Director Ross Manson introduced us to this Teutonic talent when his company Volcano commissioned the postcolonial problem play Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God from him, a show that was the standout of a triple bill at the Luminato Festival and then again in a double bill at Canadian Stage.
Now, Manson directs an earlier work of Schimmelpfennig's that captures, as any self-respecting German play surely should, the zeitgeist, that of living in a modern multicultural metropolis at least. It peers perceptively into the hidden corners of a deeply stratified society where one might fly across the planet every day as part of her job, while another spends all his family's savings and risks his life to make a single journey of similar length.
The Golden Dragon of the title is a Chinese-Vietnamese-Thai restaurant; the play takes place there, in the kitchen and out front, as well as in the convenience store next door and a labyrinth of apartments above. Teresa Przybylski's set design for this is a bit of Deutschland déjà vu: The action takes place around and on top of a giant countertop, with the audience watching from risers on either side. (That's almost exactly how another contemporary German play, The Ugly One, was staged this fall in Tarragon's smaller theatre.)
Playing the two dozen characters we encounter are five performers, who are, in alphabetical order and approximately oldest to youngest, David Fox, Lili Francks, Tony Nappo, Anusree Roy and David Yee. Rarely do any of them act their actual age, gender or race, however.
In the kitchen of the restaurant, The One They Call Boy (Roy) is screaming in pain from a terrible toothache. As an illegal immigrant with barely a euro to his name, he can't go to a public dentist or afford a private one – so his fellow four Asian chefs perform their own amateur procedure on him with a pair of sterilized pliers.
Meanwhile, at a table for two, an exhausted pair of young, beautiful flight attendants – played by Fox and Nappo, to whom those adjectives are not usually applied – sit down for a quick meal. A few floors up, a middle-aged married couple is dealing with the revelation of an affair, while a younger one is faced with an unexpected pregnancy.
In between these vignettes, Francks and Yee act out the Aesop fable about an ant who worked all summer long and a grasshopper who frittered it away dancing. (Francks, her thin black arms out at sharp right angles, her hands makings fists, is formidably formican.)
How this well-known tale evolves and eventually connects to everything else is too unsettling to spoil.
As with Peggy Pickit, Schimmelpfennig keeps a distance between his story and the audience. The actors slip in and out of character, speaking, for instance, each "pause" in the stage directions out loud.
This detached style is, in a way, actor-proof – you don't have to play the part particularly well, you simply have to say what's happening.
And, indeed, Manson's production feels too loose at the beginning. Fox is often hesitant, while Francks and Yee have trouble projecting to both sides of the audience. Roy's yelps as the Boy are overly big, while Nappo is too clearly having fun.
But it's all a ruse: The casual, comic atmosphere of the first scenes darkens, then hardens; the performances become more focused even as the plot opens up into metaphysical realms. Schimmelpfennig's stylistic tics, which had seemed indulgent, become darts flicked directly at your heart.
What starts as an extended "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!" joke turns into a suspenseful, urban nightmare. Fox sends chills down your spine with the existential musings of his Barbie-doll stewardess, while Roy terrifies when one of her characters explodes in misogynistic rage. A plastic bottle full of blood that was a joke prop earlier is used again in a truly awful context later. The ding of the bell that signals when a dish is ready becomes an ironic death knell in Thomas Ryder Payne's superb sound design.
Manson serves up a strong production of this play, both artful and accessible, that zooms in on a global village that's astonishingly feudal in its own way, and brutal in the inequality of its sexual politics.
From up above, you're supposed to be able to see further and more clearly, but looking down from the top of Schimmelpfennig's vertical city, humans look, chillingly, like bugs.
The Golden Dragon runs until Feb. 19.
The Golden Dragon
- Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig
- Translated by David Tushingham
- Directed by Ross Manson
- At the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto