The Emperor’s Nightingale

The Emperor’s Nightingale, now showing at Adventure Theatre, has two firsts going for it. Not only is it a world premiere play (you’re the first audience ever to be seeing it!), but it’s also the first time an all-Asian cast has graced the Adventure Theatre stage.

They tell a story loosely based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. This new adaptation, however, is grounded in real-world concerns. Set in 18th-century China’s Qing Dynasty, The Emperor’s Nightingale follows Prince Bao and his half-brother Prince Hongshi as they compete to prove to their father, the Emperor, that they are worthy to succeed him on the throne.

The Emporer's NightingaleBoth princes are a bit bratty and whiny. They’ve lived their whole lives in the shelter of the palace and they know nothing of the kingdom one of them is one day meant to rule. But Prince Bao has something his half-brother Hongshi doesn’t: a shrewd mom. She persuades him to make a trip to Tiger Valley to find a magical nightingale that can help him learn more about his country.

The nightingale is the original Twitter: roaming the land, gathering bits of information for the prince (just not in 140 characters or less). The news she brings back isn’t very rosy, and has a contemporary ring: floods, drought, war, injustice. “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer,” one laborer complains to Nightingale.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Prince Bao has become distracted by a bejeweled mechanical bird that Prince Hongshi and the scheming Minister Wu have created with the help of “Italian ingenuity.” Soon Prince Bao is spending all his time listening to the mechanical bird’s fairy tales, instead of Nightingale’s admittedly dour reports.

She wants him to act, to do something to help his people, not just accumulate knowledge. But he excuses his inaction by saying he’s not emperor yet and doesn’t have the position to do anything. He tells Nightingale to get lost.

Hurt and saddened, Nightingale leaves the Prince and returns to Tiger Valley, where she is so despondent she doesn’t bother defending herself from a hungry tiger. Will the Prince come to his senses and rescue Nightingale and make things right for his people? What will happen to the mechanical bird?

You can guess this does have a happy ending, as the real Prince Bao goes on to become Emperor Qianlong, who ruled for over 60 years and was known as one of China’s greatest rulers.

The Emporer's NightingaleKids will like the many songs that punctuate this play, the goofy Chinese lion dancers who play Tiger, and a cool bit at the end when the two brothers engage in a kind of rap battle, showing off to their father what they know of their country. There’s some audience interactivity too, which my kids (ages 3, 6, and 10) especially enjoyed.

My three-year-old startled whenever the Tiger roared, and hid her face whenever there was the threat of a fight erupting and when Tiger was about to eat Nightingale. The production is recommended for all ages but you can judge if your own kid might be sensitive to occasional loud noises and scenes of bird endangerment.

Adults will like the gorgeous animated projections that backdrop the action: a cloud of pink spring blossoms, a lush bamboo forest, an imperial palace. Also they’ll find very timely in this election season the play’s takeaway for what makes a good ruler – one who listens to the people and acts to make things better.


  • The show runs at Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park until May 30, 2016. Tickets are $19.50 each (with group and field trip rates available). Children under age 1 are free. Seating is first come, first served. (But all seats in this intimate theater have a good view of the stage.) Run time is one hour without intermission.
  • The theater company recommends the show for all ages but I’d recommend ages three and up. There are occasional loud roars from a tiger and some mild scenes of sword fighting and tiger stalking.
  • There is ample parking at Glen Echo. The theater is about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot. (Don’t mistake Adventure Theatre with the Puppet Theater, which is in the same building block.)
  • Also at Glen Echo are a playground, vintage Dentzel carousel, picnic tables, craftmaking yurts, and the new Praline Bakery, which opens April 30, selling sandwiches, pastries, and picnic supplies.

Photos by Michael Horan.

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