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Theater in San Francisco: The Orphan of Zhao

San Francisco Theater Written in the 4th century BCE, premiered in the 13th century in China and translated to the French in the 18th century, The Orphan of Zhao is one of the world’s oldest works of drama.  It is a traditional zaju, or Chinese opera, meaning “variety show;” synthesizing a series of poems, song, miming, and dance with a focus on comedy.  

The Orphan of Zhao is centered on the theme of revenge, and is divided into five acts with a prologue.  As the drama is pieces of storyline woven together, the three parts focus on different protagonists: General Han Jue in the first act, Minister Gongsun Chujiu in the second, and the orphan Zhao in the final act.  After a violent coup and a bloody decree, a young orphan must find out the truth behind who he is and where he has come from.  Prolific film and stage actor BD Wong makes his debut American Conservatory Theater appearance as the physician Cheng Ying, keeper of the orphan Zhao in the first three acts of the play.

This new adaptation of The Orphan of Zhao by James Fenton and directed by Carey Perloff is described by the Times of London as “emotionally-piercing,” and by The Guardian as a “haunting…drama hewn out of a myth.”  The play made its first appearance in the West in the 18th century, during the height of European “chinosierie,” or obsession with the art and culture of the Far East.  It was well received during its debut, and was soon disseminated into Italian and British theater circles.  Though it is described as the “Chinese Hamlet,” The Orphan of Zhao is certainly a masterpiece all on its own.


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