The story of loyalty, family and revenge at the La Jolla Playhouse
By Alejandra Enciso Guzmán
The latest piece currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse Mandell Weiss Theatre is a co-production of The Orphan of Zhao, the first Chinese play to be translated in the West. This adaptation by James Fenton is directed by Carey Perloff in conjunction with the San Francisco based American Conservatory Theater.
I am always amazed by the La Jolla Playhouse. This effort to bring different and diverse works to the stage is something not just to admire — it is something to also be grateful for.
“Staging an ancient Chinese epic for a contemporary American audience is like building a bridge between distant but entwined cultures,” shared Carey Perloff in her Director’s note. “When BD Wong and I first discussed Zhao more than a year ago, we realized that many of its deepest values were still central to the Chinese American culture he had grown up in: devotion to family and respect for ones elders, individual sacrifice for the common good, loyalty and humility”.
The play unfolds as a Chinese version of Hamlet. The courtier Tu’an Gu (Stan Egi) kills his rival Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel) and arranges for his whole clan to be put to death.
Zhao Dun’s wife, the Emperor’s daughter (Marie-France Arcilla) is with child. Zhao Dun, sensing his imminent death, tells the princess that if the unborn child is a boy, to make sure he avenges the family’s massacre and that he should be known as the Orphan of Zhao.
A baby boy is born but is raised under a different identity, switched with Cheng Ying (BD Wong) the village doctor’s baby and adopted by Tu’an Gu as his son. The Orphan of Zhao will inevitably find out the truth about his identity and avenge his father’s death. The live accompaniment of cello and violin, the set and even the costume design heighten the feeling of suspense.
The play is packed with all types of intense emotions over the course of its two hour and fifteen minutes run time. “Gripping” as La Jolla Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley explained, “This is a play that proves the classics are as gripping and fresh as anything in theaters today. It’s an edge-of-your-seat drama full of twists and turns, revenge and murder, and ultimately sacrifice.”
The second act, faster paced than the first, reveals the characters feelings and reasoning. Marie-France Arcilla as the ‘crazed’ older princess is delightful gliding around the stage on a Sewgay type device. The effect is chilling as she sings when reunited with her –until that moment believed – dead son. The play is a little too kooky at times but not at the expense of the overall performance.
Daisuke Tsuji, the Orphan of Zhao, portrays an innocence that simply enchants. Tsuji is also a writer, director and clown! He has toured all over, including Japan with Cirque du Solei’s Dralion. BD Wong as the village doctor Cheng Ying, has the ability to melt the coldest of hearts.
The Orphan of Zhao has been translated and amended—sometimes with radical adjustments—for centuries: Adapted to French in 1731 as L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao by a Jesuit missionary, Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare. Voltaire wrote L’Orphelin de la Chine in 1753, adding a love story which was promptly removed by Irish playwright Arthur Murphy in his Orphan of China (1756). Constantly revived on the contemporary stage in China, it was the basis for a 2009 grand opera, Jeffrey Ching’s The Orphan, and a 2010 epic film, Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice.
The Orphan of Zhao will be playing through Sunday August 3rd. There will be an ASL interpreted performance on Friday, July 25 at 8:00 pm. Some surrounding events will also be included with specific performances. For more information, visit: http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/orphan-of-zhao