Family Feud(al) Obligations

Two Clans Dis Function; Two Directors Make It Work


The blood in The Orphan of Zhao is inescapable. Because the story's rife with it, director Chen Shi-Zheng has made it the evening's central image: The stage is a lake of blood—or at least of red-dyed water—with the action taking place on a square of white island at its center. To show that time has passed, when the years have tracked too much blood over this central area, stagehands come out and lay a fresh white mat over it. And it's a measure of the thoroughness of Chen's sensibility that he makes a musical effect of the stomping noise with which they tamp down the fresh mat. The story here is big and basic, but Chen's vision of Beijing opera is a realm in which every stage of the telling must make a speciÞc beautiful shape of its own, and each shape must be slightly different from the others. The outrageous violence of the narrative, and the outrageous comedy that augments it for variety's sake, are ennobled, or at least made humane, by the elegant dignity of this string of structures. Carrying a tradition-bound art into a culture both contemporary and foreign, Chen doesn't so much update it as let its ancient stylization evolve into modern Western abstraction. The result sometimes resembles Martha Graham; sometimes, too, it looks like calligraphy, only done with bodies in lieu of brush strokes.

Though we see little violence, the story's body count is high. A general who is one of the emperor's two top advisers hates and fears his coeval, a kindly civil servant. Contriving a fake charge of treason, he seizes the excuse to exterminate the civil servant's clan. Only one grandchild, son of the civil servant's son and the emperor's daughter, survives, thanks to a good-hearted but oaÞsh doctor and a cunning but true retired statesman. The general's vengeance is boundless; to keep the child alive, the doctor must sacriÞce his own newborn child, and the statesman his life. By one of those majestic ironies that ring so true in giant sagas, the childless general mistakes the doctor for an ally, adopting his "son," really the orphan of the murdered clan, as the heir to his power. Just as the general begins plotting to kill the emperor and take over, the boy turns 20 and learns who he really is. You know who wins the climactic Þght.

Weiss and Jones in Flesh and Blood: actorially enhanced
photo: Joan Marcus
Weiss and Jones in Flesh and Blood: actorially enhanced

Details

Flesh and Blood
By Peter Gaitens
Adapted from the novel by
Michael Cunningham
New York Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street
212-460-5475

The Orphan of Zhao
Adapted by David Greenspan
Music by Stephin Merritt
La Guardia Drama Theater
Lincoln Center
212-721-6500

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But your knowing in advance doesn't diminish the fascination of this or the play's other events, because each step in the story is a ceremony, a dance, a vaudeville routine, or a game as well as a dramatic scene. Chen's imaginative repertoire is wide, his visual sense exact, and his taste unerring. He demands a lot from his actors, though the event is a mere 80 minutes long. The speaking and singing are not always pitched as precisely as the movement; only David Patrick Kelly, as the general, seems equally assured in all three departments. But the sweet haplessness of Rob Campbell's doctor, and Jenny Bacon's grave beauty, as both the emperor's daughter and her avenging son, are only slightly diminished delights. David Greenspan's text, þipping with Shakespearean airiness from the hieratic to the coarse and back again, rings like the real thing, especially when supported by the delicious Nanjing-meets-Nashville sound of Stephin Merritt's music. Chen's sensibility invests every aspect of the evening with grace, while never losing sight of everyday reality. What's most striking is how effective and upsetting the stylized killings are—far more than literalized movie splatter would be.

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