How we got there: The Lovely Bride and I had previously attended a performance of miku and the gods at the Arts West, put together by Pork-Filled Productions, and in the program book there was an ad for an upcoming production, She Devil of the China Seas, which was the story of Ching Shih, the Pirate Queen of China from the early 19th Century. I had brushed up against her story a number of times, and indeed, there was an unpublished character for the Crucible game that was based on her. Anyway, we decided to take in a play at a new venue as a result.
The new venue was at the Theatre Off Jackson, a small performance space in the International District south of downtown. The front of the theater is a bit odd, and it may have been a garage at some point in its history, and has a florist as a storefront. Its current incarnation was a performance space for plays, live shows, and trivia nights. The theater space was actually really good - the stage tucked in the corner, the rising rows of seats with good leg-room, and had about 140 seats (slightly less for this performance, for reasons which would be apparent).
Here is the general tale - Ching Shih (known by many western names) is the "Wife of Ching". Ching was a successful pirate and raider, and upon his death, Ching Shih took over the family business, built up the pirate fleet, raided mercilessly until the Imperial Court bought her off.
This is not the story of the play. That's what happens later. Instead Ching Shih is named here, as Ye Tse. Her parents are killed by pirates and her younger sister Hei maimed in the attack. She survives as a prostitute before attaining a revelation and deciding to go into the pirate business herself, joining the crew of Ching/Zhang Ngoi. She and Ngoi build a relationship of mutual respect and affection, while Hei gets involved with Ngoi's son, Zhang Boh.
Oh. And there are gods, an evil sorceresses and a dragon puppet involved as well, so we are not cleaving too too tightly to the original legends.
There is a lot of swordplay, and the actors make full use of the hall, such that the aisle seats are taped off to keep a safe distance from the performers wielding live steel. So there is action happening behind and alongside the audience as well.
In a world of short performances, She Devil is the full-course meal - two and half hours, but the pacing is excellent and moves effortlessly though the plot. There is precious little downtime, and I can't think of a sequence I would pull for timing. Indeed, the direction floods the stage with the ensemble at several points, such that you are not quite sure if you missed something with all the activity going on.
The actors are just excellent. Kristina Ora commands the stage as a cocky, determined Ye Tsi. Anna Saephan is her more vulnerable but studious sister. Van Lang Pham is a perfect Zhang Ngoi, and Aaron Jin delivers as his overly serious son Boh. Eloisa Cardona is a wonderfully malevolent sorceress, who seeks to make Ye Tsi a hero, but one under her control and influence.
This is an origin story, and is primarily about Ye Tsi's ascendance both to power and to full realization of her personal growth. The story is solid, the lines pop, and the swordplay is in full swashbuckling mode. Its a good play, and deserves a both a wider audience and a sequel.