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The Justice (April 1, 2008)

Orphan of Zhao mystifies

The Brandeis Theater Company attempts to translate the confusion and ambiguity of this ancient play.

by Marianna Faynshteyn
Staff Writer


Media Credit: Mike Lovett
EXOTIC VISUALS: BTC put on a dazzling aesthetic display and an emotionally engaging performance of The Orphan of Zhao.

After being seated in the corner of most enviable row K at Spingold Mainstage-right behind the only two people in the theater at the time-I quickly realized that the day had taken a toll on me, and I became worried that I would not be alert enough to view the Brandeis Theater Company's performance of The Orphan of Zhao with a critical eye.

Once the theater became significantly more full, the lights upon the meticulously-detailed, ominous red door in the center of the stage dimmed. Unsettling screams and whimpers echoed throughout the theater, I was stirred fiercely awake. A tsunami of shivers and silence had fallen upon the audience as white linen-adorned and white face-painted figures entered the stage performing a series of interpretative dances, illustrating the 300 brutal murders mentioned throughout the play and represented by the opening sound effects. The ensemble of ghosts played as important a role as any singular character in the show and though some were more graceful than others, as a group they effectively invoked a series of emotions-some difficult to describe or name-going beyond the standard spooks.

The Orphan of Zhao is a complex story to explain, an issue of which the Brandeis Theater Company seemed aware, though unable to remedy. Zhao was born the child of hope in the corrupt Jin kingdom. He was given away to the family doctor, Chen Ying, after his birth mother, the remaining member of the Zhao clan, committed suicide under the threat of torture from opposing forces. Chen Ying brings Zhao home, intending to raise him with her own infant son and her husband Wu. Her hopes are dashed when the emperor's brutal minister, Tuan Gu, threatens to kill all the infants in Jin if baby Zhao is not sacrificed. Chen Ying and Wu devise a plan in which they would sacrifice their own son in order to retain the rightful heir to the Jin throne, but the plan fails, leading to Wu's death, their infant son's sacrifice, and Chen Ying's forced marriage to Tuan Gu, the impending successor to the throne. The occasionally flashes back to the 18 years that follow these series of events, presenting a grown Zhao taking direction from Emperor Tuan Gu, whom he initially takes to be his father.

During the intermission, I was mulling over the stunning visuals, but as the rush settled, I overheard a series of stuttered attempts by a pair of parents trying to explain the plot to their confused young son, leading me to admit that I was a bit confused myself. In fact, it seemed most of the audience was confused as I listened in on several debates that had started up throughout the theater.

It seems in spite of the awe-inspiring sets, the intricate, subtle lighting, and the haunting music and sound, the BTC production was unable to establish key plot points clearly. Also, the insertion of certain anachronistic elements was unnecessary and, if intended as an attempt to simplify certain themes and elements, proved ineffective. The conversation the servants have in Act II was obviously intended to sound casual, but the incorporation of classically American colloquialisms such as "He gives me the creeps" was incredibly unnatural and undermined the play's efforts to convey the spirit of second century B.C. China. In fact, Act II seemed to be approached with a "cut-your- losses" kind of spirit, providing a short summary of the play through the servants' poorly crafted conversation after being unable to weave it in the previous act. This culminates in a rather down-and-out fight scene and ends somewhat tritely when Zhao utters, "I am the orphan of Zhao."

As with any other attendee, I found the short second act a bit surprising, though, as I imagine most people felt, it seemed like a bonus to what had proved to be a consistently thrilling and emotionally engaging show and whose flaws-well, at least most of them-became apparent only retrospectively. After being seated in the corner of most enviable row K at Spingold Mainstage-right behind the only two people in the theater at the time-I quickly realized that the day had taken a toll on me, and I became worried that I would not be alert enough to view the Brandeis Theater Company's performance of The Orphan of Zhao with a critical eye.

Once the theater became significantly more full, the lights upon the meticulously-detailed, ominous red door in the center of the stage dimmed. Unsettling screams and whimpers echoed throughout the theater, I was stirred fiercely awake. A tsunami of shivers and silence had fallen upon the audience as white linen-adorned and white face-painted figures entered the stage performing a series of interpretative dances, illustrating the 300 brutal murders mentioned throughout the play and represented by the opening sound effects. The ensemble of ghosts played as important a role as any singular character in the show and though some were more graceful than others, as a group they effectively invoked a series of emotions-some difficult to describe or name-going beyond the standard spooks.

The Orphan of Zhao is a complex story to explain, an issue of which the Brandeis Theater Company seemed aware, though unable to remedy. Zhao was born the child of hope in the corrupt Jin kingdom. He was given away to the family doctor, Chen Ying, after his birth mother, the remaining member of the Zhao clan, committed suicide under the threat of torture from opposing forces. Chen Ying brings Zhao home, intending to raise him with her own infant son and her husband Wu. Her hopes are dashed when the emperor's brutal minister, Tuan Gu, threatens to kill all the infants in Jin if baby Zhao is not sacrificed. Chen Ying and Wu devise a plan in which they would sacrifice their own son in order to retain the rightful heir to the Jin throne, but the plan fails, leading to Wu's death, their infant son's sacrifice, and Chen Ying's forced marriage to Tuan Gu, the impending successor to the throne. The occasionally flashes back to the 18 years that follow these series of events, presenting a grown Zhao taking direction from Emperor Tuan Gu, whom he initially takes to be his father.

During the intermission, I was mulling over the stunning visuals, but as the rush settled, I overheard a series of stuttered attempts by a pair of parents trying to explain the plot to their confused young son, leading me to admit that I was a bit confused myself. In fact, it seemed most of the audience was confused as I listened in on several debates that had started up throughout the theater.

It seems in spite of the awe-inspiring sets, the intricate, subtle lighting, and the haunting music and sound, the BTC production was unable to establish key plot points clearly. Also, the insertion of certain anachronistic elements was unnecessary and, if intended as an attempt to simplify certain themes and elements, proved ineffective. The conversation the servants have in Act II was obviously intended to sound casual, but the incorporation of classically American colloquialisms such as "He gives me the creeps" was incredibly unnatural and undermined the play's efforts to convey the spirit of second century B.C. China. In fact, Act II seemed to be approached with a "cut-your- losses" kind of spirit, providing a short summary of the play through the servants' poorly crafted conversation after being unable to weave it in the previous act. This culminates in a rather down-and-out fight scene and ends somewhat tritely when Zhao utters, "I am the orphan of Zhao."

As with any other attendee, I found the short second act a bit surprising, though, as I imagine most people felt, it seemed like a bonus to what had proved to be a consistently thrilling and emotionally engaging show and whose flaws-well, at least most of them-became apparent only retrospectively.

CSK MCC