Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

orphan of chao

The Orphan Of Chao At The Shaw Festival

This season the Shaw Festival’s morning one-act offering at the Royal George Theatre is Michael Man’s adaptation of Ji Junxiang’s The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Chao.

Written in the thirteenth century but based on a much earlier story, The Orphan of Chao tells the epic story of Tu-An Ku, an evil tyrant who dealt with his political enemies by killing not just them but their entire bloodline, effectively erasing their family name from history. He slaughtered 300 Chaos.

I couldn’t help wondering if Shaw programmed The Orphan of Chao in the knowledge that the upcoming election in their noisome neighbor to the south features a candidate who seems to feel that Tu-An Ku was onto something. Probably not.

Tu-An Ku’s policy was not a one-off, by the way. It was standard operating procedure for emperors and other tyrants at least until well into the Qing dynasty of the eighteenth century. Arguably, Mao Zedong pursued similar policies. As for what Xi Jinpeng might be cooking up . . . well, just keep on making those TikTok videos.

The essence of The Orphan of Chao is that one member of the Chao clan, the infant son of the marriage between a Chao and the emperor’s daughter, survives the slaughter of the innocents, aided by the selfless sacrifices of Cheng Ying, a doctor, and Gongsun Chujiu, an elderly retainer of the ancien regime.

Ironically, that orphan of Chao is adopted by the tyrant, who teaches the lad the arts of war, while engaging Cheng Ying to teach him ethics and the arts.

When the child, Cheng Bo, reaches maturity at eighteen and learns his true identity from Cheng Ying, he exacts revenge on Tu-An Ku.

At first I thought that adaptor Man had produced little more than an illustrated summary of the ancient story, but his presentational style, which I gather owes something to the techniques of Chinese opera, grew on me and, thanks to the impassioned performances of an excellent cast, attained real power.

The entire cast is exemplary, although some of the casting choices might strike some as less than ideal. Physically, Jonathan Tan, especially in that too-big helmet, does not seem to be an ideal fit for the brutal despot Tu-An Ku, but he’s a terrific actor and he pulls it off nicely. I had to keep reminding myself that Donna Soares as the doctor Cheng Ying was a man, but again, she turns in a passionate performance. Better cast is John Ng, as Gongsun Chuijiu, whose noble sacrifice is heart-rending.

The diminutive Eponine Lee is far from Central Casting’s ideal of the conquering hero Cheng Bo, but her all-out investment in the role couldn’t help but win me over.

The Orphan of Chao is Michael Man’s first foray as a playwright and it is an auspicious one. I have admired his work as a member of the acting ensemble, especially in Everybody in 2022, but hadn’t appreciated until this production, which accorded him an extensive programme bio, what a polymath he is. (In recent years, Shaw has restricted cast bios to cutesy reminiscences about the performers’ theatrical inspirations. Can we put this silly notion to rest? Please?)

Director Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster has delivered a solid and forceful rendition of the story. She has created a world that combines ancient Chinese motifs with contemporary objects and costume elements to underscore the unfortunate reality that everything old is new again. I especially admired the way in which she depicted the revenge of Cheng Bo against the tyranny of Tu-An Ku that ends the play as a revolt that could very well be taking place in contemporary Hong Kong or Beijing.

Given recent revelations about Chinese interference in Canada, she should probably watch her back.

Jareth Li (who also handled lighting) has produced a severely foreshortened set consisting of a crumbling wall and a metal fence that create a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere to the proceedings. Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s costumes make evocative use of fabrics to simulate both childbirth and the slaughter of innocent children.

The Orphan of Chao continues at the Royal George Theatre through October 5, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets visit the Shaw Festival website.

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[Image: Shaw Festival]

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