By Donna Herman
The Emperor’s Nightingale by Damon Chua is Pan Asian Rep’s first foray into family friendly programming as they kick off a new educational initiative. 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 Repertory’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 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…
The Emperor’s Nightingale by Damon Chua, Directed by Chongren Fan
WITH: Jonathan Frye (Prince Bao); Leanne Cabrera (Nightingale); Brian Kim (Emperor/Panda/Mechanical Bird); Ya Han Chang (Empress/Panda/Mechanical Bird); Roger Yeh (Prince Hongshi/Tiger Head); Dinh James Doan (Minister Wu/Tiger Tail).
Set & Puppet Design by You-Shin Chen; Lighting Design by Leslie Smith; Costume Design by Karen Boyer; Sound Design by Joseph Wolfslau; Stage manager, Kristine Schlachter; Assistant Stage Manager, Sabrina Morabito; Fight Movement by, Michael G. Chin; “Jasmine Flower (“Mo Li Hua”) Musical Arrangement by Louis Stewart; Press by Richard Hillman, PR. Presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, NYC. Through December 16th. For tickets visit www.telecharge.com.