Inevitably any visit to a production by Quantum Theatre becomes memorable and provocative. Artistic director Karla Boos often chooses unexpected, unfamiliar settings whose properties are as much as part of the experience as the play, even when you may come away puzzled as to why she chose the material. As in this month’s experiment The Golden Dragon by contemporary German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig as translated by David Tushingham.
The location grabs you instantly. Bleachers face a stagnant pond in Highland Park (called "Lake Carnegie") its grimy surface suggesting a repository of litter, although none floats there at first. Yet, soon, characters throw things in and spit into the water. The surface is broken by what look like industrial concrete platforms, many of them laid out in a long cross terminating at a small wooden cabin. In the foreground sits a cluttered collection of pots, pans, kitchen implements, greasy boxes and battered tubs. The people moving into and out of these surroundings wear smeared aprons over cheap, worn-out clothes. Everything fits together, not so much as a puzzle but rather as a statement, evoking ugliness and disgust, clearly deliberately.
Meanwhile, as complex narratives and events unfold, Boos and her staff implement and underscore them with intricate sounds, lighting and technical effects, spending time, energy and money to enhance it all. Boos also colorfully choreographs her cast on every solid surface. Everything comes across vividly.
But what does such devotion serve? Schimmelpfennig’s script could remind you of a piece by Bertolt Brecht, deliberately distancing you from sympathy or empathy, as if to deconstruct the third wall. Performers talk to the audience and articulate stage directions, while all five step into an out of characters and costumes, giving rudimentary suggestions of who these people are.
The Golden Dragon, we are repeatedly told, is a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant where the principal individuals, all perhaps Asian, cook in cramped surroundings, turning out complex dishes whose tasty ingredients are listed over and over as if in some ritual. The actors also portray people who eat there and/or live dreary lives nearby. In this unsavory menu, a tale emerges about a cricket who metamorphoses into a prostitute. Then, when a young illegal alien in the kitchen dies from a botched tooth extraction, that tooth takes on a complex life of its own.
The cast consists of three frequently-seen professional Pittsburgh actors, Gregory Johnstone, Catherine Moore and Mark Conway Thompson, along with Point Park University faculty member Curtis Jackson. They are joined by CMU senior Aidaa Peerzada. All five inhabit everything and everyone with skill and expertise,
What can you read into what they all do? Boos’ program notes suggest how to examine the ingredients, explaining why she decided to serve this up as well as what Schimmelpfennig was trying to say. Intentions, however admirable and profound, are background. A significant work of art must justify itself standing alone. Even so, without Boos' prompting, you may find something meaningful. I did not, regardless of the explanations, despite being strongly impressed with how the staging looks and feels.
The Golden Dragon continues at Lake Carnegie in Highland Park through August 26th. Tickets at Showclix 1-888-71-TICKETS which is the same as 1-888 718 4253. Another connection: quantumtheatre.org