The passion and pageantry plays like a planet-sized Disneyland in the centuries-old Chinese epic "The Orphan of Zhao," currently playing at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
At the start, it's like jumping on a speeding train or arriving in the middle of a royal party, where those at the top are all powerful and the peasants live at their whims. This all can work, though, if the emperor and his inner circle are moral, well-meaning people.
For a moment, we see it working well. Then the evil (and I mean evil) Tu'an Gu (played by Stan Egi) stages a coup, assumes power and begins removing all the (mostly human) obstacles in his path to total power.
Most of the work gets done by default, as members of the royal court retire, transfer to distant outposts or just leave because they hate Gu. But still in his way is Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel), the king's son-in-law.
After a failed assassination attempt, Gu concocts a way to have Zhao Dun's disloyalty established by unleashing a plan that is as clever as it is depraved. It involves a giant mastiff (Brian Rivera), who has been trained to sniff out disloyalty. Not surprisingly, because Gu rigged the test, Zhao fails badly. Realizing his days are numbered, he rushes home to his pregnant wife, the princess (Marie-France Arcilla), tells her the family must hide -- and never reveal the identity of the Orphan Zhao.
The country doctor who delivers the baby, Cheng Ying (BD Wong), helps create a plan that involves removing the Orphan Zhao to the mountain home of a departed court official Gongsun Chujiu (Sab Shimono).
The plot thickens as the orphan continues to get helpers keeping him out of danger, even as Gu continues his pledge to kill all male babies born within a month of the orphan, along with anyone sheltering the sought-after child.
It becomes pure melodrama, complete with an evocative set and engaging songs performed live that enhance the high-stakes tension and emotion that fills the piece. I'm not normally a fan of fog-thick melodrama, but director Carey Perloff and her cast make the piece work by continuously ratcheting up the tension at a surprising emotional level, especially in Act 2, when the Orphan Zhao grows up and seeks revenge against the man who killed his father (naturally, there are complications).
Or, to be a little more personal, the show grabbed me, shook me and left me thinking about what I had experienced for a long time after the final fade.
"Zhao" has an epic feel to it and its reach seems to be similar to ancient Greek tragedies. Along with the revenge saga, the play raises questions of trust, loyalty, sacrifice, personal responsibility and a host of other issues, and it does so in an engaging style that never gets in the way of the play pulling the audience into its sometimes shocking story.
As for the acting, which is sometimes different from in normal stage fare, it is strong throughout. The standouts are Wong, who makes the country doctor a memorable and exemplary character, and Egi, who creates a personification of total evil.
Contact Pat Craig at email@example.com.
Adapted from Chinese legend by James Fenton, with music by Byron Au Yong, presented by American Conservatory Theater
Through: June 29
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, 1 intermission
Tickets: $25-$150, 415-749-2228 or www.act-sf.orgshow plays at the American Conservatory Theater through June 29.