Wolff sets us down in the court of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi in 1898. Walled off in the Forbidden City from famine, local unrest, and foreign invaders, the formidable Tzu-hsi fiercely resists change. A former concubine who rose to the throne through stratagems wily and bloody, she now rules through her weak nephew, the Emperor. A timid fellow incapable of impregnating either his detested wife or his adored concubine, he fears and obeys his aunt. Shen Tai shows up in the Empress's prison to answer for the "crime" of impersonating her on stage. She toys with him sadistically, then uses him as a spy and tool. Their dance of power mirrors that of the Empress and the segment of her society that will rise up violently in the Boxer Rebellion.

Didacticism and clunky exposition abound as courtiers debate politics. "We invented gunpowder," one adviser, for example, instructs the jejune ruler. The title character's lengthy monologues also impart great chucks of information. Apart from some atmospheric visual effects, Tisa Chang's direction only rarely escapes the piece's static quality. Characters harangue in place, gesturing stagily.

People Are Wrong!: Julia Greenberg and John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants)
Dona Ann McAdams
People Are Wrong!: Julia Greenberg and John Flansburgh (of They Might Be Giants)

Actress Tina Chen's monomaniacal ruler can, however, be fun. By turns arbitrary and vengeful, knowing and witty, she laughs villainously. The first time her venom explodes, she feels like a force. But by her third tantrum, the exercise seems automatic. Struggling with unwieldy dialogue, the performers generally acquit themselves as well as they can. Arthur T. Acuna stands out as Shen Tai. We see him first writhing in a cage, a distorted welter of limbs in shadow. When he cleverly mimics the Empress and others, this supple player brings the stage to life. Shen Tai alone changes over course of the drama. As the Empress weaves her plots, we see him waver in his loyalties, then emerge as her spiritual and, in one striking scene, her visual double. Dressed in an identical kimono, flinging his long hair like hers, he presents a complex and intriguing picture. Here, Empress of China begins to play with the idea of illusion versus reality, and briefly aspires to become more than a dramatized historical record. Alas, only briefly. —Francine Russo

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