The Normal Heart meets the Golden Dragon (4 cents)

Forum Theatre recently staged a reading of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” as a one night only fundraiser. The house was just about full, and the play was rewarding on several levels.

Originally performed about thirty years ago, and recently revived on Broadway in a limited run, “The Normal Heart” is an autobiographical play about Kramer’s experience as a young gay man, with a somewhat abrasive and excitable personality, first facing the specter of the AIDS epidemic, seeing friends taken mysteriously ill, learning that they are suffering from an invasive virus and that there is no cure, and seeing them die. What’s worse, he sees his city of New York ignoring the problem, his fellow gays afraid to speak out for fear of retribution, and the city’s newspapers providing little coverage, all of which he blames on politics, at the expense of lives.

Even though the play is thirty years old, and attitudes towards homosexuality and AIDS have changed dramatically, the play is far from dated. Yes, it’s a history lesson, and an excellent history lesson. But its a history lesson with broader application. Think of the Holocaust. When word came out that Jews were being murdered in Europe, did the American government take up the cause? Not at all. Did the Jewish community of America coalesce and petition the government for action? No. Were there some Jewish leaders who did press? Yes, but they were knocked silent by those who were afraid that strong words would only lead to American anti-Semitism. Different situation; very similar dynamics.

“The Normal Heart” is a long play, to be sure, and perhaps it would be a better play if parts of it were edited down a bit. But the good parts are very, very good. And as a whole, this is an important piece of work.

Tonight, we saw something very different, “The Golden Dragon” at the Studio. An 80 minute, one act play by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig, is like nothing you have ever seen.

The message of the play is that recent immigrants, who come from different cultures, lead difficult lives in their new home. In Golden Dragon, we are dealing with five workers in an oriental fusion restaurant in a European city, and with several tenants who live in the apartment building above the restaurant. We are also dealing with a fable about a cricket and an ant, where the cricket is the oppressed, new immigrant to the land of the ants, turned into a sexual slave.

The five actors actually play about fifteen different roles, with scene changes occurring without warning, back and forth. The stage and the costuming is minimalist, making the role changing possible, but putting the full burden on the cast. And the casting is rather odd. The first line of the play tells you that the opening scene will consist of five Asians working in a restaurant kitchen. But then you see an ethnically diverse cast, and you see men playing female roles, and females playing men’s roles, older actors playing young roles and vice versatile, and so forth.

The newest kitchen employee, a young man from China, has an infected tooth which is extracted by his coworkers (as an illegal alien with no funds he can not get to a dentist), with the tooth winding up in a bowl of soup eaten by a stewardess who lives in the building. The young man dies of excessive bleeding. The stewardess obsesses on the tooth but eventually throws It off the same bridge that the body of the dead cook is thrown from.

I am only skimming the surface of the various intertwined plot lines in this short but busy play. To me, the piece was too filled with gimmicks, the comic pieces a bit too brutal, and the message a fairly obvious one. On the other hand, many audience members clearly enjoyed this show, and it has played to very strong reviews in Germany and the U.K. But it’s not for me.

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