The best way to enjoy “The Orphan Of Zhao,” a visually stunning co-production of La Jolla Playhouse and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, may be just to watch and not worry about the plot. Convoluted and bloody, the story involves treachery, attempted assassination, sacrifice, honor and loyalty – and features no less than a beheading and nine suicides. Leave the kids at home.
“The Orphan Of Zhao” is James Fenton’s adaptation of a Chinese folk tale in which a country doctor saves the future Emperor by sacrificing his own newborn son and hiding the royal son from a usurper who wants the Emperor’s crown.
The bad guy here is Tu’an Gu (Stan Egi), who in his drive for power makes it his business to get rid of everyone in his way. Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel), the Emperor’s son-in-law, is the first to go and his attempted assassination sets up this story.
Zhao Dun, accused of insulting Tu’an Gu, will kill himself, but before he does, he tells his pregnant wife to hide their infant son (if it is a son) because the rest of the Zhao clan may soon be murdered by royal decree. She gives the newborn to Cheng Ying (BD Wong), the country doctor who delivered him, asking him to take the baby to safety.
Cheng Ying does so, exchanging his own baby son (who he knows will be killed) for the royal baby. Much later (in the second act), word comes that the Emperor is dying, and his grandson Cheng Bo (Daisuke Tsuji), now a medical student, will return to avenge his father Zhao Dun’s death.
These 12 actors are kept very busy – and they are all excellent – but the show belongs to Wong’s Cheng Ying and Sab Shimono’s Gongsun Chujiu, who agreed to shelter the baby.
Director Carey Perloff, aided by Daniel Ostling’s brilliant faux bamboo set – a huge jungle-gym construction with a playing platform in the middle – creates a spectacular visual experience. Contributing to the effect are Linda Cho’s costumes and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting.
Sound is not shortchanged. Jake Rodriguez’s sound design and especially music director Byron Au Yong’s original music – beautifully played by cellist Jessica Ivry – are integral to the mood of the piece.
This level of loyalty and sacrifice are not commonly seen or even discussed these days. This complex piece requires a bit more effort from the audience than the usual theater fare, but “The Orphan Of Zhao” is worth it.
“The Orphan Of Zhao” plays through Aug. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.