Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
July 18, 2014
Some say ‘Revenge is sweet’ – but not in the theater. Revenge tragedies are brutal, and there’s often a mounting body-count.
This is certainly true of “The Orphan of Zhao,” an ancient Chinese legend, where the murders and suicides pile up. Over the course of many centuries, the story has inspired stage, film and opera versions.
Using the lyrical though repetitive adaptation by English poet James Fenton, the La Jolla Playhouse teams up with the American Conservatory Theatre, with direction by ACT’s stellar artistic chief, Carey Perloff .
This production is magnificent to behold, with superlative set, lighting, costumes and original soundscape, created by the versatile performers. The staging is highly inventive, with wildly imaginative touches, like a princess on wheels and a baby that bleeds red beans, which prompted one patron to say it ‘gave new meaning to ‘beanie babies.’
But there’s little humor here. Relentless corruption and cruelty rule, as the ruthless head of the Palace Guard, Tu’an Gu , positions himself to take the Emperor’s place. He arranges the death of his adversary, the Emperor’s son-in-law. Three hundred of Zhao Dun’s kinsmen are murdered, and if the new Zhao offspring is not produced, all the babies in the prefecture will be massacred.
The country doctor who’s attended the princess-in-exile has been given the infant – and a massive responsibility. His moral dilemma is monumental. To save the Zhao family and the community, he must sacrifice his own newborn son.
This is a story that reflects Chinese morality and culture, which may feel a tad removed from mainstream American mores. It’s about ‘family first,’ and surrendering the self for the good of the group.
Perloff puts many stylized theater conventions to dazzling use. While that enhances the beauty of the production, it flattens the emotions. The story may be operatic, but the personalities and passions are stifled. And that gives us little to hang onto or hope for.
“The Orphan Of Zhao” runs through August 3, in the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the campus of UCSD.
©2014 PAT LAUNER