The Orphan of Zhao at A.C.T.

Dave and I saw the American Conservatory Theatre production of The Orphan of Zhao over the weekend. We both found it a bit disappointing. Pleasant, very well acted, attractively staged, but not really compelling or deeply moving.

For one thing — despite an essay in the program that chides earlier Western translations for taking considerable liberties with the original — this version seemed to us to lack much of a feeling of the culture of China a thousand years ago, often giving the characters motivations and concerns that might be understandable to a modern Western audience but which seemed very much out of character with how people in that time and place thought about themselves and about their relationship with the society around them.

Now, I’m certainly well aware that Chinese culture — even modern Chinese culture, let alone the vast cultural history — is confusing and bewildering to most Americans. And I’m not opposed to updating or reinterpreting an old story to make it more accessible or relevant to a modern audience, God knows. But nothing about the production suggests that this is intended as an updating or a reinterpretation. What’s more, this approach didn’t actually seem to help the audience understand why the characters were making the choices they were making, to judge by the number of times somebody’s decision to commit suicide or to slay another person drew some uneasy laughter from the audience.

At intermission, Dave was giving the play more of a break than I was — he’s first-generation Chinese-American and knows the old story, and I think he really wanted the production to work for him. But by the end of the play, he too was very frustrated, feeling that too many things weren’t ringing true and that the production completely missed, at least for him, what the old story is about from a Chinese point of view.

Another thing that bothered us (and in this case especially me): The play is clearly trying to be poetic, and yet the lyrical, reflective sections didn’t seem to me to work well. Maybe the poetic parts of the play read better on the page, I don’t know, but when spoken or sung from the stage most of them came across as weak and unclear. The plainer and more straightforwardly dramatic portions worked far better and had much more strength, I thought.

All that said, the cast — led by B. D. Wong as the country doctor who saves the orphan and Sab Shimono as an elderly sage who helps him, both at terrible sacrifice to themselves — is terrific, and the production is attractive. Not a bad evening of theater at all, just not a very emotionally engaging one, at least for us.

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