Exciting world of ancient China awaits in ‘The Orphan of Zhao’ at La Jolla Playhouse

By Diana Saenger

The La Jolla Playhouse will stage the classic Chinese legend “The Orphan of Zhao,” a co-production with American Conservatory Theatre, adapted by James Fenton. Along with its amazing cast is the creative team of Byron Au Yong (Original Music), Stephen Buescher (Movement Direction) and Jonathan Rider (Fight Direction).

Carey Perloff returns to the Playhouse to direct, after recently having her play, “Higher,” a part of the Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series, directed by Christopher Ashley. Perloff calls “The Orphan of Zhao, a passionate epic that hails from many different source materials written about it over the decades.”

“It was an ancient myth written down during The Renaissance and then it disappeared,” she said. “Then it went through many different versions like opera, poetry, novels, and visual things before this wonderful British poet Fenton did his version.”

During a Playhouse symposium on the work, Perloff asked an attending scholar why it had such attraction.

“She answered, ‘Because it’s so elemental,’ ” Perloff said. “The deep question is what it means to be a parent … is the parent the one who is biological, or the one the child is raised by?”

Perloff, a director, playwright and producer, just celebrated her 20th year as Artistic Director of A.C.T. She has directed “Elektra” (with Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis), “Tosca Café and Racine’s Phèdre co-production with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the world premiere of “Singer’s Boy,” major revivals of “Waiting for Godot,” “The Threepenny Opera,” and many more.

She is a recipient of France’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the National Corporate Theatre Fund’s 2007 Artistic Achievement Award. She received a B.A. Phi Beta Kappa in classics and comparative literature from Stanford University and was a Fulbright Fellow at Oxford. She currently teaches and directs in the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program. She said she’s familiar with ancient drama because she started working in Greek tragedy.

“I had to learn how to honor that world; but also make it immediate,” she recalled. “It’s not colloquial contemporary American English, it’s quite formal, but kind of beautiful. As with Shakespeare, we have to find a way to make that language feel true, but also honor the formality.”

“The Orphan of Zhao,” centers on the aftermath of a political coup when a country doctor is forced to sacrifice his son in order to save the last heir of a noble and massacred clan. The play, obviously, is packed with emotion.

“The Chinese culture has an emotional austerity that’s different from many western cultures,” Perloff said. “It’ a culture that gives the collective good precedence over individual feelings.”

Perloff said she’s excited by her cast and creative team. BD Wong was her first choice for the lead character. She called him right away, and after reading the play, he said, yes.

“He was very involved in the conceptual designs, staging and is a great collaborator and leader and very respectful of everyone.” Perloff said. “We have a remarkable company of actors as well. They have to be able to find the emotional truth in the story, and be able to sing huge stage numbers. There’s so much creative work involved … we did several workshops on death and destruction because there’s several suicides in the show, and we had to figure out how to do that.

I’ve really come to admire composer Byron Au Yong’s original music that has an infusion of both Chinese and western elements that include water bowls, bamboo, stones, chello, violin, drumming, and gongs.”

Getting out of the way of the story and making it simple enough to understand was a challenge for Perloff.

“For me, it’s an invitation to travel to an entire new world,” she said. “That’s a gift theater can give its audience that is so amazing to feel they have been somewhere they have never been before. Yet ‘The Orphan of Zhao,’ is also asking questions about family, loyalty, children, government, sacrifice — and those are things that confront us every day.”

—If you go

“The Orphan of Zhao,”


through Aug. 3 at Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive.


: From $15. (858) 550-1010.