A power-mad tyrant massacres a rival clan, whose sole surviving son must set things right.
“The Orphan of Zhao” has often been called the Chinese “Hamlet,” and the comparison is apt – this ancient revenge drama, which dates back to the 13th century, has many of the elements of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
What it doesn’t have, at least in the new American Conservatory Theater production directed by company artistic director Carey Perloff, is a story line with enough of a dramatic hook to make it engaging. With a cast of one-dimensional characters and a generic plot that advances at a snail’s pace, Perloff’s staging turns this tale of murder and mayhem into a mostly bloodless affair.
Part of the problem is the new adaptation by James Fenton, which sets the story in leaden, ponderous prose. Fenton’s version, written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012, is both redundant and dismayingly un-poetic, and in this production, it stubbornly refuses to come alive onstage.
It’s not for want of trying. B.D. Wong – the San Francisco-born actor who rose to international acclaim with his Tony Award-winning performance in “M. Butterfly” on Broadway and a long-running role on TV’s “Law and Order: SVU,” heads the cast as Cheng Ying, a country doctor who finds himself caught in the crosshairs of an inconvenient regime change.
Loyalty, sacrifice and the sweep of history carry the story forward, with Daisuke Tsuji exuding glamour in the title role, Stan Egi as the evil Tu’an Gu, Marie-France Arcilla wheeling around the stage as an unhinged Princess and Brian Rivera snarling as a Demon Mastiff.
Nick Gabriel, Sab Shimono, Philip Estrera, Cindy Im, Orville Mendoza, Paolo Montalban and Julyana Soelistyo give earnest performances as royals, peasants, vassals and philosophers.
Perloff aims for a kinetic scheme on set designer Daniel Ostling’s outsized bamboo scaffolding, with the actors making entrances and exits from multiple points; Linda Cho’s costumes and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting are relentlessly drab.
The action never feels fully animated, and Perloff’s repeated use of certain devices – stylized killings with bamboo swords and poles, characters breaking into song for no apparent reason – fails to sustain interest.
Incidental music, by Byron Au Young, performed by cellist Jessica Ivry and various cast members on violin and percussion, proves more eloquent than the text.
Something in “The Orphan of Zhao” has kept this ancient story alive for centuries. Whatever that is seems to have been lost in translation.
The Orphan of Zhao
: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 29
: $20 to $120
: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org