Orphan of Zhao, now at La Jolla Playhouse, has been called the “Chinese Hamlet.”
  • Orphan of Zhao, now at La Jolla Playhouse, has been called the “Chinese Hamlet.”
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The Orphan of Zhao

The Orphan of Zhao plays like Greek tragedy minus the gods: unthinkable conflicts, one after another, but no indolent deities hover aloft, on Mt. Olympus, guzzling nectar and giggling at the havoc they’ve incited.

Imagine a father who must sacrifice his newborn son to save the last member of a noble line. Imagine him having to watch the murder and not react — even looking away would betray him — while his son’s blood spills across the floor like red beads.

Imagine the mother’s reaction when told the sacrifice will save the country. Also, not once does it enter her mind to switch the infant boys: save her son and offer up the lineal heir to the throne. After all, they’re close in age and look quite alike. Even that thought, in this culture, is unthinkable.

Now imagine the father forced to live with the man who ordered his son murdered for 18 years, to protect his “adopted” son from harm.

All because Chen Ying, a humble country doctor, honored an “understanding.” He made a vow. And vows in his culture are eternal. Chen Ying promised to care for Zhao Dun’s infant son, next in line for the throne of China. In accepting the task, Chen Ying forsook all other obligations and commitments. This way the Emperor’s power-mad minister Tu’an Gu won’t murder every young male to insure the death of the “Orphan of Zhao.” Tu’an Gu wants to rule after the Emperor dies. He’s already had all 300 members of the Zhao clan slaughtered.

Honor in this society — variations of the story go back thousands of years — is palpable. People literally see degrees of right and wrong. As with the “higher laws” of Antigone, the highest good must reign, regardless of the consequences.

As Chen Ying and others take sacrificial stands against corruption, they prove themselves nobler than the decadent leaders of their homeland. The culture dictates that the emperor acts always for his subjects and must be obeyed. But what if, as General Han Jue comes to realize, they must “serve an unjust lord”?

The emperor, in fact, behaves like an infantile Greek god. At the dedication of the Crimson Cloud Tower, he gets drunk, grabs a bow, and rains arrows down on the peasants. Realizing they can’t serve such a beast, members of the “old guard” leave the city to the emperor and his puppeteer Tu’an Gu.

The princess is about to have a baby, but since Tu’an Gu had every doctor in the city executed, the burden falls on lowly Chen Ying, which he accepts. The Orphan of Zhao stresses the importance of a vow by illustrating the cost.

Given the number of heroic suicides and battles in Orphan, patrons of the La Jolla Playhouse/ACT Theatre’s co-production hoping to see blood-spatter in slo-mo are in for a letdown. Directed by Carey Perloff, the stylized piece stresses not the gore but the fierce resolve that led to it.

The stage is a giant three-story scaffold: long metal pipes, lit in soft yellows and oranges by Lap Chi Chu, resemble thick bamboo poles lashed together. Painted silk tapestries flutter down and make for rapid scene changes.

Except for James Fenton’s at times cumbersome translation, the production flows. A prolific writer and co-star of Into the Heart of Borneo , by Redmond O’Hanlon (one of my few literary heroes), Fenton’s script doesn’t always know where the drama lies. Instead of peaks and valleys, it’s mostly foothills the production must tweak. Although Byron Au Yong’s original music goes in surprising directions and tonalities, Fenton’s lyrics are often too prosaic for the formal, theatrical style.

The Orphan of Zhao has been called the “Chinese Hamlet.” That moniker’s a way into the drama but comes up short: the Hamlet figure doesn’t show up until Act Two and, though he undergoes severe disillusionment like the Great Dane, he doesn’t hesitate when vengeance is a must.

A hallmark of the production: stylized and swift movements. When he finally appears as the orphan, Daisuke Tsuji trumps all former activity. He floats from rung to rung on the bamboo ramparts like Spider-Man. When he speaks, his authoritative voice suggests that sacrifices on his behalf may have been worthwhile.

BD Wong, Tony Award–winner for M. Butterfly, does quality work as Cheng Ying, a man almost squashed by circumstances. Wong sings well and has an indelible, Mother Courage moment when Cheng must watch his son slayed — he looks away — and not react.

Brian Rivera excels as the general, one of the few righteous men around, and as the Demon Mastiff, a manic, human-sized pit-bull. Stan Egi, as Tu’An Gu, projects an aura of evil through a gong-like voice. Marie-France Arcilla, Philip Estrera, Nick Gabriel, Paolo Montalban, and Sab Shimono also contribute. The backup musicians play everything from drums to water bowls to a splendid cello, which weaves through each scene and ties the piece together.

  • The Orphan of Zhao, adapted by James Fenton
  • La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
  • Directed by Carey Perloff; cast: Marie-France Arcilla, Stan Egi, Philip Estrera, Nick Gabriel, Cindy Im, Orville Mendoza, Paolo Montalban, Brian Rivera, Sab Shimono, Julyana Soelistyo, Daisuke Tsuji, BD Wong; scenic design, Daniel Ostling; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; sound, Jake Rodriguez; original music, Byron Au Yong; movement director, Stephen Buescher; fight director, Jonathan Rider
  • Playing through August 3; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org
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