Theater review

It’s not often that a play reaches its final bows and you find yourself wondering if there’s more. When you reach the end of producer and playwright Roger W. Tang’s “She Devil of the China Seas,” a world-premiere play from Pork Filled Productions (produced in association with Theatre Off Jackson and running through Aug. 27), you may find yourself searching for the next chapter. Part of that feeling is that the play serves as an engrossing origin story for one of the most (if not the most) successful pirates in history. Another part, however, is feeling like the play is on the cusp of potential it hasn’t quite reached.

“She Devil” follows Tse, Tang’s take on the real-life 19th-century pirate known by many names, including Ching Shih, Zheng Yi Sao and Ching Yih Saou. Ching Shih’s storied career includes defeating both the Imperial Chinese fleet and the European fleet while leading a confederation of more than 70,000 people. She has even inspired the depiction of fictional female pirates, including Mistress Ching in 2007’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

“‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ sorta showed her,” Tang said in the program’s playwright’s note. But, he added, the real Ching Shih would have vamped Kiera Knightley off the screen and stuffed Johnny Depp through the nearest hole without breaking a sweat.

I’d have loved to watch that. And Tang’s take on the fascinating life of this historical figure who doesn’t get talked about enough aims to capture that idea through witty dialogue and sword fights. The play tracks Tse’s journey from being a prostitute to a pirate leader with a gods-given destiny for greatness. Along her journey, Tse and her injured sister, Hei, join the crew of pirate captain Zhang Ngoi’s ship. Faced with fellow crewmates that are reluctant to accept her and a sorceress trying to corrupt and co-opt her destiny, Tse shows herself to be a masterfully persuasive leader with unrivaled fighting abilities and intelligence.

Kristine Ota crafts Tse into a businesswoman who negotiates for power, control and respect within the pirate community in a way that would have Lady Macbeth taking notes. Ota captures the broad, light tone of “She Devil” better than most, at one point literally keeling over and using a railing to hold herself up as she laughs in the face of someone who proposes to her. But she balances that with heart. Perhaps her best moment comes during a quiet, simple scene between Tse and Zhang Ngoi (Van Lang Pham). Following the near-death of a crewmate who sacrificed themselves to save her, Tse and Zhang Ngoi connect over what it means to hold peoples’ lives in their hands and the weight of being a leader.

Unfortunately, the direction of the play by Kiefer Harrington never quite achieves a level of cohesion that allows Tse’s story to consistently shine. Instead, many times throughout the play, the production feels like a combination of decent ingredients that haven’t quite had the chance to meld into one meal. The best example may be some of the staging choices, such as to pull action out into the audience and aisles. 

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The idea to have actors not only using the aisles for entrances but also to have bits of scenes there creates a feeling of the audience being somehow involved in the journey Tse is on. This feeling is aided by a beautiful lighting design from Chih-Hung Shao, who uses paper lanterns, with multicolored LEDs inside, hung over the audience to change the tone of the entire room rather than just the action on stage. For example, when Tse is visited in her dreams by sorceress Moh Tsu (Eloisa Cardona), the entire audience is brought into the dream world, enveloped by a deep purple light from the lanterns.

But other times, this use of the space becomes distancing. Even though aisle seats are taped off, having a sword fight even a seat’s width away from you can be a bit unnerving. But perhaps the most disappointing use of the aisle and back of house space came during a climactic speech from Tse. As Tse gives a rousing speech on stage, characters walk in from the doors at the back, some leaning against the seats, others sitting down. What likely was intended to serve as an indication of how Tse’s skillful oration drew people in, instead saw audience members turning to see who just entered, taking away from the energy and momentum of Tse’s words on stage.

Tang’s script shows a clear admiration and dedication to Tse’s story, but the way the show plays on stage feels less certain. Each time the production loses sight of Tse at its center, the motivations of other characters and story lines falter around her. By the end of the play, the show feels like a warmup or throat clearing for the production that comes next — a production that prioritizes Tse and shows her at the height of her power. Now, whether that’s a retelling of this story or another chapter in Tse’s history, I’m not sure. But I’m interested in seeing it play out.

“She Devil of the China Seas”

By Roger W. Tang. Through Aug. 27; Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle; masks and proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus test within 72 hours required; $10-$50; 206-486-0375; porkfilled.com

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