Review: San Francisco International Art Festival presents Théâtre de la Feuille in “The Orphan of Zhou” (*****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Before I saw “The Orphan of Zhao” at the San Francisco International Art Festival on May 24th, I spent the afternoon viewing the Monet retrospective at the De Young Museum. I walked away reflecting on Monet’s genius, and, in particular, the excellence of his technique. The more perfect his technique, I was thinking, the greater his ambition became. By the time he was an old man, his mastery was so extraordinary that he clearly felt confident enough to pursue perfection. Few artists ever achieve a level of technical mastery that would allow them to aim so high.

After seeing “The Orphan of Zhao,” my first thought, once I recovered from being emotionally and intellectually overwhelmed, was that this company was like Monet in having achieved such complete mastery of technique that they could now aim for perfection.

“The Orphan of Zhao” is one of China’s most ancient plays, sometimes referred to as “the Chinese Hamlet.” It is like Hamlet in that it tells of an orphan whose noble family has been slaughtered by a usurper who now holds political power. Like Hamlet, it addresses the question of how one is to behave when the world has gone rotten and needs to be set right, but it seems impossible to find and take effective action.

It is easy to follow this thematic content in the current production, presented in Chinese with English subtitles, although the details of the plot are not entirely clear.

It doesn’t matter. The company and this production are all about physical theatre, the emotional and intellectual possibilities of communicating using only the human body.

Six actors, wearing trousers s and tee-shirts, create an entire world with the help of a virtuoso musician and effective lighting that occasionally allows for the use of shadow play. There are no other costumes and no set pieces of any kind.

What they accomplish seems like a miracle; they create an entire and complex war as thrilling and convincing as if one were seeing it in the cinema with nothing but the movement of their bodies. At one point they create a rushing river; then a mountain. With seemingly perfect ease, they create a world of characters of all ages, social position, and gender. If the story is sometimes a bit confusing because of the language barrier, the clarity of emotion and the moment to moment depiction of reality are never in doubt.

Performing close to the audience in a small theatre, the intimacy achieved is fantastic.

It is difficult to describe how thrilling this is but one example will have to do. In one scene, a small group seems to have climbed a mountain to a small hut inhabited by someone who is to be killed, one of many brutal killings that take place. What we seem to see is a man pulled from his home (there is no set, but we see this) and tossed off the edge of a mountain. We see the mountain, we see him fall, we see him land, we feel the full emotional impact of the event. It seems impossible, but there it is.

I do not have the words to do justice to this piece of theatre. It will have to suffice to say it is one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences I have ever encountered, and I urge you to see the final performance at five o’clock this afternoon.  Trust me!


Théâtre de la Feuille performs “The Orphan of Zao” today, Sunday, May 26. For further information, CLICK HERE

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performance as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 23, 2019 to June 2, 2019. The Festival features performances by more than 50  different artists, ensembles, and companies including dance, theatre, music, and comedy, plus various educational activities and public receptions.  Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows by buying a Festival pass. More details CLICK HERE.

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