ACT stages “The Orphan of Zhao”

Stirring Chinese classic fills the ACT stage1402756309Orphan_of_Zhao_01_Web.jpg

A cruel emperor, a conniving courtier, a loyal minister, a brave doctor, a lost child, bereaved women, assassination, hand-wringing, swordplay and a snarling dog.  Shakespeare? Star Wars?  No, The Orphan of Zhao, now at American Conservatory Theater.

It’s a classic tale from China, but a tale in flux. We have no idea who first set it down, likely in the 13th century, just as we have no idea who really gave form to The Iliad. Not surprisingly in the case of something so old, drawn from even older sources, there are several versions of Orphan, as well as multiple translations.  Operas, movies and dramas have been constructed from it. Thus anyone who wants to reforge it for a modern audience faces a wealth of choices.

In collaboration with La Jolla Playhouse, ACT has chosen to stage the acclaimed recent adaptation by British poet, James Fenton.  The result, under director Carey Perloff’s expert hands, is a stylish and absorbing take on this complex tale of an imperiled young man who must set right a time that is seriously out of joint.

It’s an epic in bamboo.

That bamboo is right before us in the swords and staffs swung by warriors, but most notably in Daniel Ostling’s wonderful openwork, many-level bamboo set that stretches to the very top of ACT’s tall proscenium. Dressed in Linda Cho’s rich array of costumes, the actors strut on its many platforms, bluster or lament from them and even clamber on them like monkeys, while musicians, headed by the remarkable cellist Jessica Ivry, enrich the action with a score that clacks like chiding tongues one moment and sings with plangent melodies the next.

The Orphan of Zhao is a broad tale in which the fate of a nation hangs in the balance, a nation whose tone is set by its emperor.  Unfortunately this emperor is a very bad one. In the drama’s first scene, he shoots arrows from his newly completed Crimson Cloud Tower into innocent citizens far below, just for kicks. His ambitious advisor Tu’an Gu, encourages him, but when a trio of other ministers objects, the emperor banishes one and alienates another. Only thoughtful, loyal Zhao Dun chooses to remain in his service, hoping to make the emperor see sense, to cleanse the regime of corruption, but the wily Tu’an Gu outmaneuvers him. Zhao is forced to commit ritual suicide–but not before he adjures his wife to save their unborn son, so he might one day do what his father could not.

That son is, of course, the orphan of Zhao, and it goes without saying that his mother does manage to save him, with the reluctant aid of a good-hearted country doctor, Cheng Ying. Does the young man, Cheng Bo, finally confront the wicked Tu’an Gu?  Not surprisingly, he does indeed.

Smartly staged, this Orphan of Zhao is wonderful to look at, its appeal enhanced by Lap Chi Chu’s subtle lighting, by Jake Rodriguez’s sound design, and by the additional talents of Stephen Buescher (movement direction) and Jonathan Rider (fight director), who add to the fluidity.

The cast, headed by BD Wong in a strong and moving performance as Doctor Cheng Ying, is excellent: Stan Egi as the deliciously wicked villain, Tu’an Gu; Daisuke Tsuji as brisk, determined young savior, Cheng Bo; Orville Mendoza as loyal General Wei Jiang; Nick Gabriel as doomed Zhao Dun: Marie-France Arcilla as the mother of the orphaned boy; and Philip Estrerea, Cindy Im, Paolo Montalban, Brian Rivera, Sab Shimono and Julyana Soelistyo.

The Orphan of Zhao plays on Geary Street until June 29th. ACT’s 2014-15 season opens with the return of Bill Irwin and David Shiner in Old Hats.  That season includes the inauguration of the company’s new venue, the Strand Theater on Market Street. For tickets/information, call 415-749-2228 or visit