The Emperor’s Nightingale Soars

Reviewed by Jara Jones

How do you take a lesser known Hans Christian Anderson story (Nattergalen), which many have argued was the writer himself working through his frustrated feelings of unrequited love, and elevate the text?  What individual choices must be made to yolk the tale into a depiction of 18th century Chinese history, yet still make the production engaging for children and adults?  Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE pulls off the answers to these questions quite handsomely, delivering a work that’s as gorgeous to watch as it is delightful and thought-provoking.

In our play, it’s 1723, and the Emperor of China (a stoic, grounded performance by Brian Kim) must decide which of his heirs – Prince Bao (played well with charm and an honest imperfection by Jonathan Frye), or Bao’s older half-brother Prince Hongshi (Roger Yeh giving the character’s bullying actions a surprising vulnerability) should replace him to lead the Qing dynasty.  Faced with a test of leadership and the need to possess a deep knowledge of the country’s citizens, Bao and Hongshi square off to compete for their father’s admiration and his ultimate prize. Who will win – the prince with access to the favors and inventions of the Italians (such as a mechanized storytelling bird – the one of a handful of links to Anderson’s story), or the man who learns about the strife shouldered by China’s individuals with help from a magical nightingale?

Here’s what really got me; having seen so much children’s theatre, having performed so much children’s theatre Off-Broadway for years, you run into the common, tired tropes.  Audience participation, clear, unambiguous heroes and villains, sugary morals which dissolve in the mind soon after consumption of the performance. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE ingeniously deconstructs every single one of these clichés; the hero we’re supposed to cheer is prideful and ignorant and cold at times. The villains are fueled by honest behaviors – estrangement from their father, a pragmatic approach to save the culture and customs of a nation by brokering deals with its potential colonizers.  When we’re asked to join the show and provide our voices, it’s a welcome break from the tense and overwhelming somber narrative of the play. And it’s so captivating and lingering how the play uses eight Chinese ideograms to bookmark each chapter of this story. When the final sentence using all these signifiers is revealed, you’ll want to rush home (like I did) to decode the message, which reveals itself to be a beautiful summation of the work.

You-Shin Chen deserves a huge round of applause for her austere, yet eye-catching set design. The framing nature of the set gives the production this indelible feeling like we’re watching the pages of a folk tale come alive. The choice to make the boundaries beyond the frame lush with paper lanterns adds a timeless quality to accent the weight of the ideograms, thanks to Chen and Leslie Smith (lighting designer).  Joseph Wolfslau’s sound design charges each scene with adult tension, and it’s one of many factors which gives this show so much depth and care. Lastly, Karen Boyer’s costumes (especially for the animals) burst with vitality and color.

I want to talk now about the actors, and how much I appreciated their contribution to this piece.  Leanne Cabrera as the Nightingale takes a role which, in the hands of a lesser actor, would have come off as syrupy and pouting, and instead hits you in the gut with her intensity and determination. This bird is not one to sing blithely; she demands that the troubles she’s seen be addressed, that the villages she’s witnessed broken and destroyed be made healthy and prosperous once more.  Also, every time the primary actors took on a second or third role, they astound you with the playfulness and commitment they possess; Brian Kim and Ya Han Chang’s transformation from Emperor and Empress to dopey, gossiping pandas, or scheming mechanical birds. Roger Yeh and Dinh James Doan’s deft tonal switch from their darker roles as Prince Hongshi and Minister Wu into a sultry, sassy, yet still dangerous tiger.  Here’s a powerful thing which I discovered two days later; it didn’t occur to me that Yeh was the head of the tiger. The giggling, suave predator felt so different in energy than his work as Hongshi that when the curtain call arrived, I was honestly upset that the actor playing the tiger wasn’t taking bows. Really. Yeh’s performance had me so glued to his choices, his affable menace, and I celebrate his work as an actor.

As you can tell, I haven’t had this much fun watching a show in quite a while. Pan Asian Repertory Theatre embarks on new ground by creating a production reaching out to children of all ages, yet never loses its determined, precise focus on Asian history and its artistic elements championed within.  You have to see this show. There’s nothing else being made in the city right now which will give you the same level of entertainment, educated insight, and disarming, heartfelt performances.

The Emperor’s Nightingale is produced by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and runs until December 16th at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 W 42nd St) Running time is 55 minutes with no intermission.

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