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La Jolla’s “Orphan Of Zhao” proves no good deed goes unpunished.

BD Wong in La Jolla Playhouses production The Orphan Of Zhao
Kevin Berne

The Orphan Of Zhao


La Jolla, CA---How far does one have to go to prove loyalty and sacrifice to one’s country, one’s honor, and keep one’s promise? And how many good deeds does one have to prove to the powers that be that one is loyal? And how far will that get you? One must sacrifice life and limb. So the answer is everything! Bearing witness to these questions is the noble Chen Ying (BD Wong) a poor, humble country doctor who is willing to do just that.

The legend of “The Orphan Of Zhao”, a 13th century Chinese play has been newly adapted by James Fenton and is based on a traditional Chinese source. It is deftly directed by Carey Perloff and boasts a cast of fourteen playing multiple roles.

One of the story telling methods used is speaking directly to the audience, watching the action happen and then telling us again what just happened. While the action is fluid and the story moves along, it does get a bit redundant. Along with the narrative, the combinations of music and different sounds are captivating and stimulating to hear.

‘Zhao’ is currently in a visually spectacular, emotionally draining and blood letting production at the La Jolla Playhouse in association with American Conservatory Theatre through Aug. 3rd. With cellist Jessica Ivy playing soulfully in the background and an assortment of musical sounds coming from drums, water bowls and violin ‘Zhao’ is also a masterpiece in auditory perfection.

Our epic drama begins with politics, power and revenge as so many do when the power driven general Tu’an Gu (Stan Ego is evil personified.) stages a coup and orders everyone loyal to the emperor killed. Most around them flee to ‘higher grounds’ with the exception of his rival Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel) who is married to the princess. When the prince learns of his impending murder, he orders his pregnant wife never to reveal the identity of his son, if that is the case. He will be called The Orphan of Zhao.

And so it was that the one and only remaining male heir left standing was the infant son of Zhao Dun and his princess wife (Marie-France Arcilla).

When Chen Ying the only ‘alive doctor’ still around, was called in to ‘deliver’ the boy, he found an infant child alive and kicking. He promised the Princess to smuggle the boy out safely and keep him out of harem’s way. By this time, to assure an heir would not live to see the light of day, the general ordered that all the male heirs were killed in the hopes of wiping out this dynasty. To accomplish this, Gu put a bounty on the infant’s head: either the heir is produced or all male children born in that same month are put to death.

Ying’s wife had just delivered to them a baby boy and was agonizingly helpless to stop her husband from fulfilling his vow. (“Let him kill the orphan boy and be done with it.” “I cannot hand over the Orphan. I made an undertaking. I did not realize quite what it would cost, but I knew it would cost me dearly. When they come for me, I know I can face death. But I cannot face the shame of having betrayed the Orphan of Zhao and his entire clan”.) Making the ultimate sacrifice, Ying handed over his own son claiming him to be the orphan heir. The infant was slaughtered right in front of the father’s eyes to assure the dynasty is over.

For his reward in turning over what he thought was the heir, the corrupt general, now in charge of the emperor’s court and rescinding his order by allowing all other male children to live, takes in the infant son he believed to be the doctors child, and in a gesture of gratitude rewards Ying by bringing the boy up in the royal court with all the privileges a royal male could enjoy. “You and I shall be his father”.

Epic proportion plays by any other name still play out in epic proportions. This reviewer, while fascinated by the story was more taken by the technical aspects of the show. It’s not that the acting lacked in excellence (take for example Brian Rivera’s strong performance as the Demon Mastiff, a human taught to kill like pit bull; was scary scene to witness), it's just that there was so much for the eye to take in that it was overwhelming.

There is so much death and killing (no blood, thankfully) by any and all means that killing off anyone in the way of Gu becomes so commonplace that getting to know any of the characters turned out to be an effort in futility save for the doctor and his grown son, beautifully and sensitively played by Daisuke Tsuji. Philip Estrada who plays the ghost of his young son (and other roles) also plays the violin. It is Sab Shimono's Gongsun Chujiu a former court official, in a standout performance, that trades his life for the boy's.

Daniel Ostling’s floor to ceiling scaffolding, made to look like bamboo with different heights and planks connecting one section to another that allowed the characters to move freely is captivating. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design captures every shadow and corner, yet still allowed us to see all the various routes the men took to get from one place to another. Stephen Buescher’s movement with Jonathan Rider as flight director makes everything look so easy and Linda Cho’s costumes are exquisitely fitting for every character.

Finally, one cannot overlook the calm and beautiful acting of BDWong. Could anyone have played the part? Of course and most likely will. My bet is on Wong for his gentle and confident interpretation as Chen Ying making this character and this play a memorable one.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Aug. 3rd

Organization: La Jolla Playhouse

Phone: 858-550-1010

Production Type: Drama

Where: 2910La Jolla Village Drive

Ticket Prices: $15.00-$80.00


Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre

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