The Emperor’s Nightingale by Damon Chua is Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s first foray into family friendly programming as they kick off a new educational initiative at Theatre Row. It’s a (loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale “The Nightingale.” Set in 1723 China, it is the tale of two teenaged brothers vying to prove themselves to be worthy as successor to their father, the Emperor.
Being, ahem, slightly older than the target audience, I chose to bring my 9-year-old cousin Leo as my plus one to a preview performance of The Emperor’s Nightingale. And I’m glad I did. I’m happy to report that he liked it more than I did, which is as it should be. He was able to follow the story easily and wasn’t bothered by any plot inconsistencies or weaknesses. He enjoyed the wonderful animal costumes by Karen Boyer, and although tongue-tied, loved it when the Tiger came into the audience and asked him a question.
In Damon Chua’s version of The Emperor’s Nightingale, Anderson’s original tale of a sweetly singing nightingale that captures a Chinese Emperor’s fancy, is changed to a morality play about leadership. In keeping with Pan Asian Rep’s mission to highlight Asian theatrical traditions and use Asian performers, Chua has loaded his production with all things Chinese. From the music, to the costumes, to the Lion Dance used by the Tiger.
The set is a series of layered traditional screens that were cut out in the middle for entrances and exits. While lovely, they were four sided and the actors had to awkwardly hop over the lip for their entrances and exits. Really? I kept worrying that someone was going to take a dive. Chinese lanterns with different Chinese characters were hung on both sides of the stage. It wasn’t until I read the script after I saw the performance that I realized what they were. In the script it calls for someone to draw each character on a screen at a certain point in the script and pronounce the meaning. In performance, the lantern lit up and a character said the English word “Far Away,” “Nearby,” “Troubles. Bad Fortune.” You get the idea. I missed that whole element altogether, it just didn’t register.
The story has been totally changed. The only familiar elements are the Chinese setting, the presence of an Emperor (Brian Kim) and a Nightingale (Leanne Cabrera). In this version, the Emperor has two teenaged sons, Prince Bao (Jonathan Frye), a thoughtful and serious son, and Prince Hongshi (Roger Yeh), a lazy braggart. The Emperor is disgusted with the two Princes' lack of knowledge of their native country and refuses to name a successor until they learn more about it and prove they are worthy to rule. He gives them 100 days.
The two princes turn to different sources to learn about the country. Prince Bao turns to the magical talking nightingale that flies from town to town talking to the people and delivering news and information all over the land. She knows what problems the people have and who is doing what. Prince Hongshi turns to the Italian foreigners who have been mapping the country and don’t really know anything other than geography and might actually be a threat to the nation. Spoiler alert, Prince Bao who cares about the people of the country and their problems, is deemed the winner by The Emperor.
The Emperor’s Nightingale in this iteration is a fine choice if you have a child in tow. Otherwise…
(Photos by John Quincy Lee)