Arts & Events

Theater Review & Preview of Festival--'Orphelin 2.0' by Effervescent Théâtre de la Feuille of Hong Kong at the Ongoing San Francisco International Arts Festival

Ken Bullock
Friday May 31, 2019 - 10:22:00 AM

A bright, energetic theater troupe from Hong Kong, Théâtre de la Feuille, performed their own updated version of the ancient Chinese story 'The Orphan of Zhao' with brilliant mime and acrobatic ensemble work, all in the service of a fine, crystalized sense of storytelling, to open the first full weekend of two for the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason on San Francisco's northern waterfront. 

Performing at the Cowell Theater, situated on the Bay waters, just one of the Festival's venues, Théâtre de la Feuille's five member ensemble--Suen Chi Hung, Lai Cheung Leong, Wang Yao, Li Tengfei and Liao Shuyi--accompanied by an onstage musician--Heidi Law; music design by Fung Chin Lung--fleshed out the story of the destruction of the Zhao clan, leaving only infant Zhao Wu, concealed and mentored by loyal Zhao retainer Cheng Ying, until he confronts his family's murderer years later. 

'The Orphan of Zhao' by playwright Junxiang Ji was originally staged as "Chinese Opera" during the Yuan era of the 13th century, based on chronicles from the Han Dynasty (Second Century, BCE to Second Century, CE). It was the first Chinese play to be translated into European languages, including English, during the 18th century. Voltaire based his play 'Orphelin' on it. Théâtre de la Feuille has adapted Ji's play, taking into account contradictory variants of the ancient tale, as well as its European Enlightenment vogue, so--'Orphelin 2.0.' 

'The Orphan of Zhao' has been called "the Chinese Hamlet," from the revenge theme, the suicidal thoughts of Cheng Ying--and a subplot of incestuous love between brother and sister inlaws that sparks the bloodletting. 

It was moving to hear Hamlet's Soliloquy delivered in Chinese by the Cheng Ying character--and exciting to watch the ensemble acrobatics depicting childbirth, massacres, concealment--and finally a splendid triumphal human juggernaut parading through the theater. 

Watching the troupe, it seemed both very much a modern Chinese adaptation of a classic, with nods to classic Chinese theatrical forms, but also having the particular condensed elegance of modern French mime. I learned later that their excellent director, Ata Wong Chun Tat, studied at L'Ecole Internationale de Mime et de Théâtre in Paris, gathering classmates there of different backgrounds from Hong Kong and around China to form the company.  

Jacques Lecoq, founder of the School, was initiated in theater by members of Jacques Copeau's family theater company, one of the original modern European theater troupes. Copeau's collaborator Charles Dullin's own Théâtre de L'Atelier was the laboratory for Corporeal Mime and also fostered Antonin Artaud. Copeau's theater was the inspiration for Jerzy Grotowski's concept of the Poor Theater. 

(And the 18th century Jesuit translations of Chinese plays, as well as the techniques of Chinese Opera, inspired Brecht's Epic Theater--and Théâtre de la Feuille's spectacle certainly had an epic theatrical sense with its historical sweep, yet attention to a compact milieu of central characters amid the great events.) 

I hope this gifted troupe returns soon to the Bay Area. 

But the Festival has more to show in all the performing arts, as well as in panels and symposia on art and social issues, to promote its theme this year, "the Path to Democracy," with scores of both local and visiting international artists, sometimes in collaboration. 

In theater, the Festival just announced the confirmation of the appearance this weekend of Prague's Spitfire Theater, after the cancellations of Canada's Compagnie Virginie Brunelle and Syria's Collective Ma'louba, due to last minute visa denials by the US State Department. 

Spitfire will perform their masked play 'Antiwords,' described as a creative reimagining of Vaclav Havel's famous play, 'Audience,' Thursday at 9:30, Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 7, at the Southside Theater, Building D, Fort Mason, with a special workshop held at the ACT Studio, Sunday at 1 o'clock. Performance tickets $15-$28. 

For information and tickets, check the Festival website: or call (415) 433-6988