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The Emperor's Nightingale

Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 17, 2022

Deanna Choi
Photo by John Quincy Lee
In celebration of the Lunar New Year, the estimable Pan Asian Repertory is presenting a revival of The Emperor's Nightingale, now playing at Theatre Row. The play by Damon Chua is intended for family audiences, and its colorful design elements, loquacious animals, amusingly anachronistic rap songs, and fourth-wall breaking interludes will surely appeal to kids tired of pandemic-induced Zoom entertainment and video recordings.

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (which many scholars say was inspired by the author's unrequited love for singer Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale"), Chua's adaptation eschews the Danish fairy-tale version of Chinese culture in the original. Using history drawn from the Qing dynasty period and applying traditional Chinese art forms to tell the story, The Emperor's Nightingale focuses on an immature prince who would become the Quianlong Emperor, one of China's most revered rulers.

In this version, Prince Bao (Jonathan Wong Frye) and his half-brother Prince Hongshi (Hyunmin Rhee) vie for the throne, currently occupied by their Emperor father (Fenton Li). Bao has the support of his civically-minded mother (Xiaoqing Zhang), who encourages her son to use the services of Nightingale (Deanna Choi), who is attuned to the needs of the country's struggling folk, to assure his place as rightful heir.

Hongshi, on the other hand, is enamored with Italian art, power, and money and conspires with the duplicitous Minister Wu (Xiaoxiao Sun stepping in for Mandarin Wu at the performance I attended) to win the throne. Tricking his brother into repudiating the real Nightingale for a propaganda-spouting mechanical one (in a clever riff on Andersen's conceit), Prince Hongshi seems poised to be the next ruler unless Bao sees the errors of his ways.

Hyunmin Rhee and Xiaoxiao Sun
Photo by John Quincy Lee
Running just under an hour, The Emperor's Nightingale feels overstuffed, and it regrettably lacks the emotional pull characteristic of the most effective works of children's theatre. In addition to sibling rivalry, the play tackles conflicts both within the nation and in nature (with commentary from bamboo-chewing pandas and a hungry tiger), and it addresses the East-West divide through an encroaching clash with Italy. Because there is so much to keep track of, it is hard to root for characters with whom we should sympathize, and the performances and writing make this even more confusing.

There is a moment late in the play, for instance, in which the bodily-divided Tiger (played by Rhee and Sun) contemplates making a meal out of the hapless Nightingale. In British panto-style, the Tiger halves asked the children in the audience how they might best capture and then prepare a feast of the feathered warbler. One resourceful child advised the beast to use its considerable tail for apprehending her, and another recommended making a delicious soup with the bird. Isn't cheering on the culinary preparation of the do-gooding Nightingale akin to booing when Peter Pan asks the audience to clap their hands to save Tinker Bell?

If the play does not ultimately warm the heart or periodically quicken the heartbeat, there is much to appreciate in the performances and presentation. Under Chongren Fan's direction, the cast is quite winning. Most of the actors play two or more parts, and a good deal of the show's fun comes from seeing them move in and out of human and animal roles with speed and alacrity.

Best of all, the visuals (with an additional shout out to Joseph Wolfslau's sound design with its ferocious tiger's roar) are outstanding in their integration of Chinese cultural conventions. Set designer You-Shin Chen frames the stage in a red paper cut-out composition, and this is strikingly complemented by Chinese lanterns suspended from the proscenium. Chen also provided the shadow puppets, which add another layer of traditional artistry. The lighting by Leslie Smith washes the stage in rich reds and blues, and the effect is that of a painting come to life. Karen Boyer's colorful and regal costumes for the Emperor and his court are dazzling, but even the drab peasant clothing worn briefly by a group of villagers is ravishing. Yet, it's the costumes for the animals that tickle the imagination with their vivacity and playfulness.

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, so the play's revival seems especially opportune. Unless, that is, you're a Nightingale.

The Emperor's Nightingale
Pan Asian Repertory
Through January 30, 2022
Theatre 5, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: