For better or worse, the reality of globalization is everywhere apparent — except for our theater, which remains stubbornly parochial with borders even more impassable than Donald Trump's fantasy wall.
So it's welcome news that the Theatre @ Boston Court is giving us the chance to become acquainted with German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of the most produced playwrights in Europe today. (Don't feel bad, if like me, you're still sounding out his last name — the fault, dear theatergoers, lies not in ourselves but in our producers that we are Anglo-centric.)
"The Golden Dragon," which opened Sunday, is receiving its Southern California premiere in another of co-artistic director Michael Michetti's inspired ensemble productions at the Pasadena venue. Five performers slip in and out of roles without regard for race, gender, age or any other delimiting category in this dark contemporary fable set in and around a "Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese" fast-food restaurant in an unnamed city.
Whenever the story returns to the cramped space where five Asian immigrants prepare food orders under factory-like conditions, variations of the line "In the kitchen of the Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant" are intoned. The Western patrons order their selections by number, which are then confirmed by the server: "Number 74: Bangkok-style duck red curry with fresh mushrooms, peppers, bamboo shoots, onions, lemon grass and coconut (hot)."
For all the obliviousness of the customers, the workers themselves might as well be numbered rather than named. The stories of these immigrant cooks are as unimportant to these restaurant regulars as the precise ingredients of the dishes they mindlessly gobble.
Schimmelpfennig doesn't press this point in his drama, translated into English by David Tushingham. It's implicit in the architecture of the relationships. But a twist in the plot shows just how porous this stratified society can be.
One of the kitchen workers, a 30-year-old immigrant without papers called "the boy" (Susana Batres), is suffering from an unbearably painful toothache. The agony of this young man's condition is repeatedly cut to — almost in the manner of a Quentin Tarantino cliffhanger when a pair of pliers is retrieved to extract the blackened incisor.
A funny thing happens to this rotten tooth, which lands in a wok after getting yanked and eventually (through another kitchen mishap) finds its way into a bowl of soup. A female flight attendant (Theo Perkins) discovers the offending tooth amid "the lemon grass and the Thai ginger and the tomatoes and the button mushrooms" at the bottom of her bowl.
But rather than react in horrifying disgust like her roommate and co-worker (Joseph Kamal), she wraps the bloody tooth in a red napkin and slips it in her purse — a mysterious memento of an experience she suspects is larger than her understanding.
Other story lines widen Schimmelpfennig's narrative net by tracing the movement of economic forces in the relationships of those living in the vicinity of the restaurant. There's a degree of fuzziness in a few of the vignettes, and not all of the characters make a distinct or even discernible impression. But the plight of immigrants in this readily recognizable Darwinian society reflects on everyone.
An allegory involving an industrious ant (Ann Colby Stocking) and a music-adoring cricket (Justin H. Min) introduces a note of magical realism that quickly takes a forbidding turn. When winter comes and the dancing cricket has to beg for food, the ant, sitting pretty with its banked provisions, pimps the cricket out as a sex worker to other ants, who treat the delicate insect as though it were alive purely to satisfy their lusty appetites.
The play's central setting isn't immaterial to any of the character relationships, which (for human being and bug alike) are marked by consumption. Globalization has expanded the network for exploitation that has always existed between the haves and the have-nots, men and women and those who derive pleasure from violence and those who experience it only as a source of pain.
The free-flowing casting, in which an actor isn't limited by race, gender or even species, contributes to this sense of the capricious yet historically reinforced way power is allocated in society. The stories are playfully constructed here, with the performers treating the stage directions as part of the dialogue. In this storybook manner, the flexible company maps out for us the brutal underpinning of our tacit reality.
Although not quite as theatrically audacious, Schimmelpfennig's style evokes at points the work of British playwright Caryl Churchill. The short scenes, the numerous characters, the easy maneuvering between realism and fantasy and the sociopolitical context that is in the end the real protagonist of the drama — all of this seems indebted to the precedent set by the author of "Top Girls," "Cloud Nine" and "Far Away."
Michetti's production, incorporating Sara Ryung Clement's abstract set design of metal scaffolding, projects onto the harsh narrative backdrop a Mary Zimmerman-esque whimsicality. The gushing blood from the young man's tooth is illustrated with a red ribbon, and the cricket's dance for the ant is conveyed through a suggestive gestural choreography with chopsticks that has a minimalist beauty all its own.
One sign of Michetti's masterly direction is the tonal control his actors maintain over the material. They work majestically in unison, transforming as effortless as figures in Ovid to reveal to us the fractured nature of a universe contained in a steaming hot little white carton.
'The Golden Dragon'
Where: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 5
Info: www.BostonCourt.com or (626) 683-6883
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes