Tapping into the parochially fertile imaginations of his nineteenth century readers, Hans Christian Andersen set his 1843 story “The Nightingale” in China, spinning a fanciful tale about an unnamed emperor in a porcelain palace who is astonished to learn that, despite all of his power, he has not yet experienced the greatest beauty in his realm: hearing the song of a special nightingale from a nearby forest.
Unfortunately for the emperor, the bird’s incomparable sounds seem reserved for the humblest members of Chinese society, a problem that is overcome when a palace maid is enlisted to lure the nightingale to the emperor. Of course, given the capriciousness of god-like rulers, the emperor’s affections eventually turn toward a new obsession, a bejeweled, mechanical bird that can sing human-made compositions. To make a short story even shorter, the nightingale flies away, the mechanical bird breaks, the emperor is near death, the nightingale returns to save him with some lovely singing, and we learn that natural beauty is more precious than artificial beauty.
In The Emperor’s Nightingale, playwright Damon Chua reconceives this story, holding on to Andersen’s essential lesson, at least secondarily, while also swapping out a lot of the plot (hello scheming Italian mapmakers! goodbye death!) to create a work that is far more historically and culturally resonant. While Andersen’s story easily could be shifted to another locale by, say, replacing the word “emperor” with “king” and altering a few other references, Chua’s play, a production of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, is inextricably Chinese, both in terms of its content and design.
Situating his adaptation specifically within the Qing dynasty, Chua demotes the emperor (Brian Kim) to a minor role, turning the story instead into a contest between a couple of noble half-brothers, Prince Bao (Jonathan Frye) and Prince Hongshi (Roger Yeh), for their father’s throne. The judging will be simple: whoever knows more about China wins. But neither prince seems capable of thinking beyond the privileges of power, though the older Hongshi is clearly the one we’re supposed to root against, especially after he aligns himself with his father’s top adviser, Minister Wu (Dinh James Doan), who is clearly up to no good. By contrast, Bao has the love and support of the Empress (Ya Han Chang), presumably his biological mother and not Hongshi’s. She tries to help Bao by telling him about a magical talking nightingale “that flies all over to gather the latest news and happenings.”
In addition to the nightingale (Leanne Cabrera) becoming the focus of Bao’s attention rather than the emperor’s, another signficant departure from Andersen’s original story is that Chua’s nightingale transfixes through thoughts as opposed to aesthetics. Whereas the Danish author’s nightingale comforts the poor and downtrodden with her beautiful singing, Chua’s chattier bird is more like a correspondent for The Nation, reporting the miseries she sees across the land to anyone willing to listen. The ambitious Bao certainly falls into this category because of his desire to outshine Hongshi and become emperor. But the moral question at the heart of Chua’s version of “The Nightingale” is whether Bao also wants to do something about the suffering on the other side of the palace walls. That’s what will determine if he’s a good leader or not.
If this lesson sounds a little too serious or seriously boring for a children’s show, then you might be underestimating the kids in your life (or overestimating the grown-ups). Still, fear not, Chua accounts for short-attention spans of all ages, packing the show’s brief run-time with comedic appearances from two bamboo-eating pandas (Kim and Chang) and a ravenous, bifurcated tiger whose head (Yeh) and tail (Doan) are in constant conversation about filling their stomach. The charismatic actors’ collective joy in playing these silly, non-human roles is absolutely infectious, particularly when that troublemaking tiger takes a brief detour into the audience. Despite these semi-improvised shenanigans and the show’s myriad costume changes, director Chongren Fan keeps everything moving apace while never losing the story’s deeper meaning.
Although Chua is less interested in beauty for beauty’s sake than Andersen, the look and sound of The Emperor’s Nightingale is still stunning, drawing on a wealth of traditional Chinese art forms to both enliven and culturally ground the story. Leading the way are Joseph Wolfslau’s period-inspired score and You-Shin Chen’s eye-popping set, which pays lovely tribute to the art of Chinese paper cutting. Leslie Smith’s lighting design nicely highlights all of the wonderful colors in Chen’s set, as well as those found in Karen Boyer’s lambent costumes, which do imaginative justice to human and animal alike.
Chen also is responsible for the play’s two fleeting Chinese shadow puppet shows whose only flaw is that they didn’t go on longer. In fact, that would be the one major criticism of the entire play.
The Emperor’s Nightingale (through December 16, 2018)
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: 55 minutes with no intermission