In “The Orphan of Zhao” at the La Jolla Playhouse, an ancient Chinese legend serves as the basis for some impressive stagecraft and conservatory-level performance.
Grounded by a preternaturally sensitive B.D. Wong, this intriguing albeit specialized epic won’t be for all tastes.
Dating back to the fourth century BC, “Zhao” is one of the oldest stories still being retold. The basic premise — after a noble clan is slaughtered out of treachery, a humble country doctor is faced with an impossible choice to save the titular heir — has resurfaced in countless sagas, from Herod’s massacre of the innocents to more than one daytime drama.
Accordingly, this skillful co-production with American Conservatory Theatre makes economical use of multiple Asian-theater techniques to bring James Fenton’s adaptation to fruition. Utilizing every inch of designer Daniel Ostling’s bamboo-scaffolding set, director Carey Perloff sends her valiant ensemble careening from dropped screens to pulled curtains to the rafters and back.
Complemented by Lap Chi Chu’s expert lighting plot and Jake Rodriguez’s ambient sound effects, the ultra-stylized proceedings include several frisson-making simulated demises, choreographed movement sequences and imaginative handling of animals and the elements.
Incorporating Peking Opera-flavored songs (composed by Byron Au Yong) and nonstop instrumental effects, “Zhao” calls for and receives heightened stylistic attack from its players, who wear costumer Linda Cho’s detailed wardrobe like second skins.
Wong’s reluctantly heroic Cheng Ying keeps the story focused in emotional truth. His innately appealing quality and refined intelligence prohibits overkill, even where the narrative twists might make histrionics appropriate.
The ever-welcome Sab Shimono brings old-school dignity and postmodern twinkle to sage Gonsun Chujiu, just as Stan Egi pitches villainous Tu’an Gu between arcane and anachronistic, exactly right.
Marie-France Arcilla’s bereaved Princess, Nick Gabriel’s noble Zhao, Daisuke Tsuji’s spry title character and Paolo Montalban’s feckless Emperor are among other standouts in an estimable company distinguished by its discipline, selfless commitment and versatility.
For all that, it’s an extremely formalized piece, once removed from American College Theatre Festival territory. Audiences uninitiated in Asian theater may have their patience taxed. Yet those viewers who stay with “Orphan of Zhao” to its quietly moving denouement may find themselves choking back tears, and regional and academic entities should flock.