THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO, currently playing at The La Jolla Playhouse presents an a story rooted in fourth century BCE. This modern adaption of an ancient Chinese legend, sometimes refereed to as “the Chinese Hamlet” is a tale of vengeance, honor, and destiny and is playing through August 3, 2014 at the Mandell Weis Theatre.
The story is of an evil and ambitious minister to the emperor who manages to get rid of his rival ministers, either by forcing them out or by planning their deaths. When the minister married to the princess is branded a traitor, he is forced to choose his method of death, and the minister has all 300 members of the traitors clan killed. The last surviving member of the clan is a newborn son, who is given into the car of a simple country doctor who has to make some hard choices about what he is willing to sacrifice in the hope that this child will one day reclaim his birthright.
Often, a character in this show will speak directly to the audience, which gives a much quicker insight to who they are and how they think. Because of this, it makes the their choices all the more poignant when it seems to go against their own self interest. A constant theme throughout this show is the idea of a noble self-sacrifice that these characters are willing to make out of loyalty.
B.D. Wong is the country doctor Cheng Ying and an excellent cast supports him. Some standouts are the Stan Egi as the wicked Tu’an gu, Marie-France Arcilla as the demented Princess, and Daisuke Tsuji as the boy born to the destiny of being of “Orphan of Zhao”.
This show explores concepts like self-sacrifice, love, honor, revenge, and what an individual is capable of doing, through the lens of the Chinese legend. So, it seems that it should go without saying, that this is a story that is told in a way that is not as frequent on the American stage. It has a very formal; almost lyrical, foreign, and distanced feel to it that lends itself to the highlighting that this is from a different culture. I think this is an important because the choices these characters make are very much centered in the time and culture in which it takes place. So it is foreign and distant from how American’s may think of sacrifice, love and honor. Where we may think of things on a much more individual basis, these characters consider the bigger impact of the nation when making their choices.
I very much enjoyed how the music and sound effects were a visible part of the show. A cellist provides the onstage music and the sound effects are done on stage where everyone can see them. This makes for a much more immediate sense of theatre and emphasizes the collaborative nature of not only theatre, but of the story since everything can be seen by the audience. The costumes by Linda Cho are beautiful and so quickly interchangeable that there at times it seems like there are more cast than are really in the show. I particularly liked the use of color for key characters – and the beautiful and complicated costumes for the demented princess.
The open bamboo set gives plenty of space for this cast to explore with multiple levels and provides for smooth transitions between scenes. The set also provides some excellent real estate for one character to crawl and hop over and around as he travels through the mountains.
Much like if you traveled to a different country, THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO provides the chance to see things through the lens of a different culture. This is a journey I highly recommend taking before it’s over on Sunday, August 3. For show times and ticket information go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org
PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse