By: Paulanne Simmons
January 27, 2020: Pan Asian Repertory’s The Emperor’s Nightingale has everything a small child wants in theater – music, puppets, colorful costumes and audience participation. It also has what parents hold dear – an easily understood moral.
The play, written by Damon Chua and directed by Chongren Fan, features a cast of six talented performers who portray the Emperor (David Hunyth) and the Empress (Xiaoquing Zhang); the Emperor’s sons, Prince Boo (Jonathan Frye) and Prince Hongshi (Keith Cao); the evil Minister Wu (Dinh James Doann); and the wise Nightingale (Leanne Cabrera).
Because this is a children’s story, there are, naturally, several talking animals, two gossiping pandas (Hunyh and Zhanag), two chattering mechanical birds (Hunyh and Zhang), and a not so fearsome tiger (Cao is the head; Doan is the tail).
The Emperor’s Nightingale is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Nightingale,” set in 18th century China. In Chua’s story, the Emperor tells his sons he will bequeath his kingdom to the one who brings him the most thorough news of what’s happening in his kingdom. This is important because his realm is beset by the restless Russians to the north and the Italians, who have penetrated China and extended their influence through their advanced technology.
The competition is fierce, especially since the two princes are only half-siblings. Hongshi seeks the aid of the treacherous Minister Wu, but Boo has the assistance of his kindly mother and the Nightingale, who teaches him that a worthy emperor must have his people’s interests at heart
If The Emperor’s Nightingale is simply another hero’s journey, so thoroughly documented by Joseph Campbell, the kids don’t seem to know or care. For them it’s all new stuff. They giggle at the corny jokes. They offer advice to the perplexed tiger. And they have a great time.
The Emperor’s Nightingale ran through January 26, 2020 at Theatre 5 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in NYC. Photography: John Quincy Lee