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Chinese folk play adapted

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

April 4, 2008

The Brandeis Theater Company took a tremendous risk about a year ago by placing The Orphan of Zhao, an adaptation of a Chinese folk tale, on the bill for the 2007-2008 season. It’s always a gamble to try translating a story across languages (let alone cultures) that are so widely different. The resulting production could easily have been a glorious failure.

Or it could have been merely glorious.

The BTC’s Orphan of Zhao, newly-adapted by Mia Chung and directed by Naya Chang (GRAD) and Eric Hill (THA), wholly deserves the latter praise. Spurred on by a series of superb outings from the soon-to-graduate MFA acting students, this haunting tale of sacrifice and justice is a powerful theatrical experience that is simply not to be missed.

The play revolves around Tuan Gu’s (Robert Serrell GRAD) slaughter of the Zhao clan, the family of his chief political rival. A wordless prelude with music tries to express this event, but this symbolic approach loses the brutality of the massacre. It does, however, establish the slain Zhao as ghosts, the first of many phantoms that hang over the production. The use of the ghosts for scene changes is a particularly strong choice to highlight their restless, lingering presence.

The show begins in earnest when the doctor, Cheng Ying (Sara Oliva GRAD), slips into the Princess’ (Julia Broder ’08) room, where the last heir of the Zhao family has been born even as his family is butchered. It falls to the good doctor to smuggle the child from the palace and raise him to avenge his family. Interspersed with the action in Act One are scenes set eighteen years later, where Tuan Gu, now emperor, offers advice to prepare his successor, Bao (Lindsay McWhorter GRAD), to take the throne.

Oliva’s Cheng Ying is beyond fine; she’s memorable. Her clear courage and compassion do plenty to commend her throughout the show. However, it’s the sheer horror of her ordeal, so palpable in her wide-eyed, tear-streaked face and wordless chattering as the first act ends, that pushes her performance into an entirely new stratosphere.

Serrell’s always-powerful presence suits Tuan Gu well, while he also manages to find a lot of humanity within a brutal man who has done monstrous things. McWhorter likewise thrives in her deeply conflicted character, one stuck in a traditional tragic dilemma.

Anthony Stockard (GRAD) turns in an excellent supporting performance as Cheng Ying’s trusted friend Gongsun Chujiu. His smooth, mocking sense of humor even in the face of death adds a tensely chuckle-inducing dimension to the end of Act One. Joshua Davis (GRAD) also has a strong outing as Cheng Ying’s caring, noble husband, Wu.

Maggie Pilat’s (GRAD) set and Bobbie-Jean Powell’s (GRAD) lighting are consistently effective for creating the atmospheres of the various settings. The enormous red and gold palace doors are particularly praiseworthy in their sanguine glory; towering, ominous, almost appearing to be painted in blood under Powell’s red lighting. The eerie blue-green lighting for the ghosts, meanwhile, highlights their looming supernatural presence throughout the show, catching well on their mostly-white uniforms (designed by Hsiang-Lin Lee GRAD).

Yu-Hui Chang’s (MUS) haunting music and J. Hagenbuckle’s (GRAD) sparse, stark sound design also contribute well to the play’s steadily rising tension.

The Orphan of Zhao tells a powerful story, which is only heightened by the alluring design work and the superlative performances. It will continue to run this weekend, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 with a Brandeis student ID (or $9 for the Saturday matinee). At a fairly short 100 minutes, it is a show well worth both the time and money spent.

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