Luminous and artfully staged, La Jolla Playhouse’s The Orphan of Zhao, presented in association with American Conservatory Theater, is an epic story of sacrifice, revenge and self-reclamation that dates back to 4th Century B.C. China. This adaptation was written by English poet and journalist James Fenton and is directed by Carey Perloff, who is American Conservatory Theater’s artistic director. So thematic weightiness and major professional credentials abound here.
Yet The Orphan of Zhao is a long and winding story (and a lengthy production as well) that satisfyingly surprises in its technical ingenuity on stage but not so much in its narrative. Most of the play’s turns are predictable, for it is a rather traditional premise: Innocent baby loses his birthright, is spirited away from sure death, and raised not knowing his true identity until the point at which, as a young man, he learns it and takes revenge.
It is actor BD Wong who is The Orphan of Zhao’s life-giving force on stage. Wong, who previously played the part of the doctor who saves the orphan from execution at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, gives a thoroughly absorbing performance and anchors the play to our emotions like nothing else does – not the bloodless but breathless murders nor the thoughtfully employed live music and percussion. Wong, last seen at the Playhouse five years ago in a production of the musical Herringbone, personalizes a tale of great sweep, giving The Orphan of Zhao an intimacy that might otherwise be lost in all its spectacle.
Back to music for a moment: There are places in the play where actors break into song, but many of these seem expository rather than lyrical expressions of emotion. This production has operatic tendencies, and they certainly are intentional, but they lack a certain seamlessness.
The bamboo scenic design by Daniel Ostling and Linda Cho’s elaborate costumes are nothing less than exquisite, and the stage fighting and “sword” play are enthralling time and again. The Orphan of Zhao also boasts what any winning epic tale should: a villain to despise, and Stan Egi’s Tu’an Gu enjoys his fiendish villainy to the absolute max.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.