Empress of China, TinFish Theatre. Tz’u-hsi, the Chinese empress who climbed back to power while her enemies (including family members) conveniently met untimely deaths, could easily be portrayed as a Wicked Witch of the East. But Jody Wilson in the title role never allows the empress’s conniving and ambition to seem too contrived. This self-possessed woman is fully capable of justifying her actions. Rebecca J. Ennals’s thoughtful, intriguing staging represents the Chicago premiere of Ruth Wolff’s fast-moving drama of political intrigue and personal vainglory at the turn of the centruy, when the empress comes out of retirement, regains the throne, and aligns herself with the Boxer rebels in a war against Western influences.

An inconsistent cast hampers the show, however. Vincent Lonergan is deftly sycophantic (down to the evil chuckle), and Reid Ostrowski brings intensity to his role as the empress’s conscience. But the other performers are unimpressive. Mark Trahan conveys the varied emotions of his slave-actor character but is otherwise unconvincing. Foster Williams may speak the words of an idealistic tutor but lacks the confidence to back them up. As the Pearl Concubine, Joslyn Housley is aptly ambitious but physically stilted. And Devayani Pandav can be effectively petulant as the childish wife of deposed emperor Kuang-hsu (Gordon Chow), but the two of them often overact. Like the empress herself, Wilson is surrounded by people of lesser strength.

–Jenn Goddu