Luminous and artfully staged, La Jolla Playhouse's The Orphan of Zhao, presented in association with American Conservatory Theater, is an epic story of sacrifice, revenge and self-reclamation that dates back to 4th Century B.C. in China. This adaptation was written by English poet and journalist James Fenton and is directed by Carey Perloff, who's American Conservatory Theater's artistic director. So, thematic weightiness and major professional credentials abound here.
Yet, The Orphan of Zhao is a long and winding story (and a lengthy show) that satisfyingly surprises in its technical ingenuity on stage but not so much in its narrative. Most of the play's turns are predictable, for it's a rather traditional premise: Innocent baby loses his birthright, is spirited away from sure death and raised not knowing his true identity until the point at which, as a young man, he learns it and takes revenge.
BD Wong, playing the part of the doctor who saves the orphan from execution, is The Orphan of Zhao's life-giving force on stage. Having previously played the role at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Wong gives a thoroughly absorbing performance and anchors the play to our emotions like nothing else does—not the bloodless but breathless murders nor the thoughtfully employed live music and percussion. Wong, last seen at the Playhouse five years ago in a production of the musical Herringbone, personalizes a tale of grand scope, giving The Orphan of Zhao an intimacy that might otherwise be lost in all its spectacle.
Back to music for a moment: There are places in the play where actors break into song, but many of these seem expository rather than lyrical expressions of emotion. This production has operatic tendencies, and they certainly are intentional, but they lack a certain seamlessness.
The bamboo scenic design by Daniel Ostling and Linda Cho's elaborate costumes are nothing less than exquisite, and the stage fighting and "sword" play are enthralling time and again. The Orphan of Zhao also boasts what any winning epic tale should: a villain to despise, and Stan Egi's Tu'an Gu enjoys his fiendish villainy to the absolute max.
The Orphan of Zhao runs through Aug. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse. $35 and up. lajollaplayhouse.org.
The Full Monty: The stage version of the1997 British film has six unemployed Buffalo steelworkers putting on a strip show to raise money—and their spirits. Opens in previews on July 18 at New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
Here Lies Jeremy Troy: In this farce, a painter hires a model to pose as his lawyer friend's wife when the lawyer's boss comes to dinner. Opens July 18 at PowPAC in Poway. powpac.org
Les Miserables: In this classic musical, a poor Frenchman spends 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread, only to escape and get caught up in a revolution under an assumed identity. Opens July 20 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
Mary Poppins: A musical about a mysterious flying nanny who arrives to help two out-of-control children and their unhappy parents. Opens July 16 at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista. moonlightstage.com
Out on a Limb: Scripps Ranch Theatre brings this festival of new works by local playwrights back for a third year, with three plays by Lisabeth Silverman, California Jack Cassidy and Jake Edmondson. Runs July 18 through 20 and July 25 through 27 at the Legler Benbough Theatre in Scripps Ranch. scrippsranchtheatre.org
I Hate Hamlet: A serious actor must decide whether to play Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park or sell out and do a big-money TV series. Presented by Intrepid Shakespeare Company, it runs through July 19 at SDA Performing Arts Centre in Encinitas.
Romeo and Juliet: A boy + a girl + a priest + two warring families = tragedy. Through July 20 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Disenchanted: In this musical satire, fairytale females like Pocahontas, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Hua Mulan strike back at exploitation. Through July 26 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
In a Forest, Dark and Deep: Neil LaBute's tense play explores the complex relationship between a university dean and her redneck carpenter brother. Through July 27 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
Othello: A bitter soldier, Iago, schemes against his general, Othello, and, as usually happens in a Shakespearean tragedy, lots of people die. Through July 27 at The Old Globe Theatre. oldglobe.org
Bare: A Pop Opera: Life and love get complicated for the students at a Catholic boarding school. Through Aug. 3 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
The Orphan of Zhao: A reimagined version of an ancient Chinese play about a child who grows up only to learn about the awful tragedies that surrounded his infancy. Through Aug. 3 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Romance / Romance: This is a musical that's really two short plays—in Act 1 and Act 2—about (yep, you guessed it) romance, relating to each other only with one shared song. Through Aug. 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Ether Dome: The West Coast premiere of a play, based on true events in the 19th century, about two pioneers of surgical anesthesia—a trailblazing dentist and his ambitious student. Through Aug. 10 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.com
Into the Woods: A reinvented version of the musical that brings together classic fairy-tale characters returns to where it premiered in 1986. Through Aug. 10 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Jade Heart: A drama that jumps backward and forward in time to tell the story of a Chinese girl who was adopted as an infant by an American woman. Through Aug. 10 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. moxietheatre.com
Geeks: The Musical: A satirical take on the nerds who flock to Comic- Con. Presented by Pysphi Productions, it runs through Aug. 16 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. geeksmusicalsd.com
Pageant: Each show's audience picks a winner from six contestants in a beauty-and-talent competition in this musical comedy. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it runs through Aug. 31 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net