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Review: The Orphan of Zhao

A masterful production not to be missed

Credit: Courtesy The La Jolla Playhouse

Above: B.D. Wong as Chen Ying in "The Orphan of Zhao," currently on stage at The La Jolla PLayouse

— It’s a story older than the Great Wall of China, the tale of a child whose birth threatens to destabilize the status quo and in whose place a thousand children will die if he is not found.

The oldest, and mostly likely among the most “true” is that of the Orphan of Zhao, from the third century BC, a Chinese story which as gone through almost as many tellings as it has seen centuries ever since it was translated into French in the 1730s.

The story, in most versions, follows what happens when a courtier (Zhao), married to the Emperor’s daughter, crosses a mighty general and malevolent influence at court. Hunted down to the seventh generation, the house of Zhao is all but wiped out, save for one.

The latest version, “The Orphan of Zhao,” currently on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, by James Fenton, is an ambitious work, beautifully staged, with a story that will keep you enthralled until the final curtain.

Based on several texts, Fenton’s version centers on a country doctor, Cheng Ying (a deeply satisfying performance by the brilliant B.D. Wong) who faces a horrific decision- hand over the orphan of house of Zhao to the ruthless general who sees the child as a threat to his power and save the lives of the children of the empire, or switch the infant with his child, thus saving both the orphan and the empire’s infant sons at the cost of his own.

It’s a Sophie’s choice no one, let alone a doctor, would want to make. But it is the first of many compromises to come in a story that sees mighty courtiers fall and asks how deep is honor and what sacrifice will one person be willing to make to save the many.

To save the last of the Zhao, Cheng Ying brings up the boy as his own, and in an ironic turn, must share him with the very man who killed both the boy’s family and Cheng Ying’s son, Tu’an Gu (played by a masterfully villainous Stan Egi) who takes him for his adopted son and heir.

Like his “father,” the Orphan soon faces a horrific decision. Once he learns the truth about his parentage, does he stay with the status quo or exact the revenge that his second father’s actions so richly deserve?

Displaying a graceful flexibility of range, Daisuke Tsuji beautifully moves The Orphan from charming adolescent to a young man with a mission.

The co-production with the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) of San Francisco gives the timeless story both an anchoring in its historical context with elaborate and detailed costumes and a more contemporary feel with its Brechtian elements such as exquisitely understated violence and killings as well as choreography. Director Carey Perloff has pulled off a well-balanced show, one that exudes a carefully coiled energy, and yet never dips into mere mimicry of the Chinese source as it moves through court intrigue to family tragedy.

This is due, in part, to the fabulous set and intriguing use of traditional musicians. Known for its ingenious staging, the La Jolla Playhouse more than delivers with Daniel Ostling’s magnificent bamboo set complete with multiple levels on which to hang (sometime actually), Fenton’s retelling of revenge, love, betrayal and commitment to a greater cause.

Here, too, the musicians are put to good use, traditional instruments well employed to add atmosphere and add energy to the story as drums and other percussion instruments stand in for the sound of weapons and violence.

The only weakness is the song structure which, according to interviews with Fenton, is intended to reference classical Chinese compositions. That may be, but the lyrics often come off as stilted and while audiences may be unused to the Chinese tonality, it is the actors themselves who seem most confused by the unfamiliar half-tones.

Of greater interest and success is composer Byron Au Yong ‘s instrumental score whose richness and texture nicely echo Ostling’s set. In addition, Jake Rodriguez's ambient sound design skillfully helps carry the emotional texture of the story changes, keeping the ear as vigilant as the eyes are to the shifts in clothing and set.

Despite these small details, “The Orphan of Zhao” is a masterful way to celebrate summer. Miss it and you will have let a stunning production slip away.

"The Orphan of Zhao" continues through August 3rd. Please see The La Jolla Playhouse for times and ticket information.

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