Ancient Chinese Epic Comes to A.C.T. Stage

by Jean Schiffman

Carey Perloff directs this violent, heartbreaking tale of sacrifice and revenge.

“I love Greek tragedy, I love work on this scale!” exclaims American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff. “But I was embarrassed that as a classicist I’d never heard of this archetypal story.” She is discussing the American premiere of a new version of “The Orphan of Zhao,” which she is directing this month on the A.C.T. stage, in a coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse. It is a violent, heartbreaking (and even, occasionally, comical) epic of sacrifice and revenge, in which an ordinary man must make a life-altering choice, and a newborn baby must die. The story originated in China in the 4th century B.C.E. and was first written as a play in the 13th century. Since then it has been rewritten and re-imagined many times over, in various cultures and languages and in many different forms and performance disciplines, including a 2010 movie, “Sacrifice.” It was the first Chinese play ever to be translated into a European language (French, in the 18th century).

Perloff was introduced to the story by her Taiwanese assistant on “Elektra” last fall. After reading many different versions, she came across British poet James Fenton’s 2012 adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company and went to England to see it. “I thought his version was absolutely magical,” she says. “The story has an inevitability, like any great myth.”

Written for modern audiences but with a slight formal quality—the characters introduce themselves directly to the audience (“I am Tu’an Gu, head of the Palace Guard and one of the most powerful ministers at the Court of the Emperor of China”)—Fenton’s adaptation follows the ancient storyline. But he has added a scene at the end, a devastating one,in which the ghost of the murdered child appears to his living father. (Some refer to the play as the Chinese “Hamlet.”)

An emperor, influenced by the evil courtier Tu’an Gu, is ruthlessly murdering his own people. When the emperor’s son-in-law, Zhao Dun, protests, he is killed. But his widow, the emperor’s daughter, is pregnant with their son. As soon as the child is born, the princess gives him to a country doctor, Cheng Ying, begging him to safeguard the child. “Three hundred souls are vested in this one child,” she tells him. “He is the last of the Zhao clan.” In an effort to find and kill the missing baby, the court threatens to slaughter all newborns. Cheng Ying has a newborn son of his own, the last of his bloodline. The decision he makes will haunt him for the rest of his life.

It is that decision that drives the story. For the central role of the doctor Perloff immediately thought of BD Wong, the San Francisco-born actor (Lincoln High School, San Francisco State) who received a Tony in 1988 for his role in “M Butterfly” on Broadway and has since appeared in other Broadway plays (including the 2004 Sondheim revival “Pacific Overtures”) and in film and television.

For Wong, it was a long-awaited chance to perform at A.C.T., which he attended while in high school. He found “Orphan,” and the role of the doctor, very moving. “It’s extremely accessible and rich and deep,” he says. “You always hope for a part like this.” He and Perloff have been discussing the nuances of the role for a year. “I think this play hangs on a very interesting premise,” Wong continues, “a theme of beauty and revenge and life choices and regret. It’s old writing, but these [issues] are still on the table: There’s nothing archaic about the corruption of power and the desire to put people down to bolster yourself, to make your life meaningful.

“These conflicting emotions that the character I’m playing is feeling are things we can all relate to,” he adds. “The play is juicy and audience-friendly and thought-provoking.” His character ages 20 years during the course of the play, but, says Wong, what’s more important to him than depicting arthritis or wearing a gray wig is “the way one feels about a decision one’s made—a decision as difficult as this one—at the beginning of 20 years as opposed to the end.” That journey is a challenging and profoundly internal one for an actor to tackle.

“Being a father is a deeply central part of BD’s life,” says Perloff.

“I called him the second I read this play. He called me back and said, ‘You don’t know what resonance this has for me personally. It feels emotionally true to me in every way.’”

In contrast to the RSC production, which was controversial in that not all the actors were of Asian heritage although they were playing Asian characters, Perloff spent a year casting her production, resulting in an all Asian-American ensemble, including several actors familiar to local and A.C.T. audiences: Los Angeles film and stage actor Sab Shimono, Julyana Soelistyo (who won a Tony for “Golden Child”), locals Cindy Im and Brian Rivera and others. “When you’re an Asian-American actor and you’re performing with other Asian-American actors, there’s a shorthand of joy and humor and family that you just don’t get anywhere else,” comments Wong. “It’s mostly because we all have the same pain and relate to the same references and difficulties and observations in our careers, whether we’ve worked together before or not.”

“My conception,” says Perloff, “is that 12 actors would tell the story, play all the roles and do the scene changes.” So, for example, a “demon mastiff” is portrayed not by a puppet, as in the RSC version, but by Rivera, in full snarling canine mode (“Incredibly scary,” comments Perloff). The movement segments of the play borrow from Asian martial arts.

Certain stage directions (“Chu Ni dashes his head against a tree”) present scenic challenges but will not be represented by red ribbons and rose petals, Perloff promises.

The actors themselves are the Foley artists, creating the sounds of barking dogs, water, leaves crunching, bones clacking together. They’ll play instruments, too: cello, viola, violin, cymbals, even a sweet-potato-shaped clay vessel, a copy of an ancient Chinese instrument. Composer Byron Au Yong (who also wrote the music for last season’s “Stuck Elevator” at A.C.T.) has composed the score, including music for Fenton’s lyrics, and he has added some new songs as well. The music will have a Brechtian feel to it; “Brecht learned from Chinese opera,” says Perloff, “and that’s the style of this play. It was Brechtian before its time!” She adds, “The thing that’s delicious about Peking Opera is how abstract it is and how much is left to the imagination of the audience. It’s like Shakespeare—much of the scenic world is left to the imagination.”

Costume designer Linda Cho drew inspiration from clothing as far back as the Ming Dynasty and as recent as Communist China—“that classic Mao silhouette.” Quilted fabric is carried through thematically, with actors adding a hat, a robe, an accessory to create individuality as they move from role to role. Some costumes are hand-dyed and hand-painted with abstracted calligraphy, and the older characters will sport stylized Chinese makeup. Cho has described her design as referencing “the lines of the set, the fluidity of modern dance and contemporary Chinese artists.”

The set, by Daniel Osting, features a scaffolding that resembles an asymmetrical bamboo birdcage with a platform for musicians, a bridge and 14-foot upper platforms.

Amidst the production elements, all of which are inspired by both ancient and modern Chinese art, Perloff’s directorial gaze will not waver from the psychological realities of the story. “It’s an ancient world, a Chinese world—and it should feel, emotionally, extremely rich,” she says.

June 11 → 29

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, 415/749-2228