Visually ravishing, conceptually inventive, and infused with great talent, “Monkey: Journey To The West, ” the theater piece that opens this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, is an intriguing mash-up of Chinese opera with:
“The Wizard of Oz”
Cirque de Soleil
“The Lion King” (both animated movie and Broadway musical)
“Enter the Dragon” starring Bruce Lee (who was the son of a Cantonese opera star.)
Buddhist theology, philosophy and mythology
Sunday morning cartoons
Its cast of 41 includes some masterful actors, singers, dancers, amazing martial artists, aerialists and acrobats. Its music is composed by indie rock star Damon Albarn of the British rock band Blur, but in the style of traditional Chinese music. Albarn’s frequent collaborator Jamie Hewlett is credited with designing the “visual concept” as well as the splendid costumes, and creating the many animations that are projected seamlessly in-between the live-action scenes. There are two aerial choreographers and a martial arts choreographer.
Director Chen Shi-Zheng, conceived this, his fifth show for the Lincoln Center Festival, inspired by a 16th century Chinese novel, which itself was inspired by a well-known sixth century pilgrimage by a monk from China to India (India is the “West” of the title) in search of Buddhist holy writings. If all this isn’t rich enough, Chen stumbled upon the novel when he was eight years old during the Cultural Revolution, when it was banned; it was hidden under the bed of a caretaker.
So much effort and ability have gone into this show that I feel guilty to confess that, though Monkey unfolded in just nine scenes over 100 minutes, it felt far longer to me. The show is more literally spectacular than it is emotionally engaging.
The problem is the story, a picaresque tale that begins with an animation of a stone egg falling off a cliff and cracking open, revealing the birth of the Monkey King. The scrim opens to reveal a breathtakingly colorful scene full of tumblers and contortionists and yes, the Monkey King, in a bright yellow suit. Over the next few scenes, Monkey attains mortality, acquires weapons of mass destruction, acts belligerently toward the Queen Mother of Heaven. Buddha traps him under his giant hand for 500 years, which tames him. Monkey earns his release by agreeing to accompany the monk Tripitaka on his journey to India to bring back the Buddhist sutras – during which they encounter many adventures, accompanied by “Pigsy, a lustful Daoist sage, Sandy, a heavenly general who, after disgracing himself at a banquet, was exiled to a river of sand and now eats river travelers as a diversion, and the Dragon prince, who is transformed into Tripitaka’s white horse.”
That is a direct quote from the program. If at any time you’re confused, you can turn to the program, which is full of explanation, synopsis and context. There are also English supertitles for the show, which is in Mandarin. Maybe it’s just me, but little of this helped much, especially the supertitles. A typical one: “Form in formlessness. Emptiness in non-emptiness. For non-real is real. And non-non real is non-real.”
What’s real is how visually arresting “Monkey: Journey to the West” is.
Click on any picture to see it enlarged
Monkey: Journey to the West
part of Lincoln Center Festival
David Koch Theater of Lincoln Center
Based on the novel “Xi you ji”, attributed to Wu Cheng’en; concept, text and direction by Chen Shi-Zheng; music by Damon Albarn; visual concept, animation and costumes by Jamie Hewlett; conducted by Brad Lubman; lighting by Nick Richings; sound by Barry Bartlett; masks, prosthetics, makeup and wigs by Bertrand Dorcet; coaching and new aerial choreography by Heather Hammond; original aerial choreography by AntiGravity/Caroline Vexler; martial arts choreography by Zhang Jun; music supervisor, Mike Smith.
Cast: Wang Lu/Cao Yangyang (Monkey), Li Li (Tripitaka/Flying Fairy), Xu Kejia/Liu Kun (Pigsy), Dong Borui/Li Lianzheng (Sandy), Liu Kun (Dragon King/Old Man), Yao Zhuoran (White Skeleton Demon/Flying Fairy), Chen Yijing (Spider Woman/Flying Fairy), Chen Jiaojiao (Princess Iron Fan), Huo Yuanyuan (Guan Yin/Dragon Princess), Liu Chang (Subodhi/Buddha), Hu Yuanjun (Queen Mother/Flying Fairy) and Dong Ziqiang/Zhao Peng (Dragon Prince/White Horse); and Da Lu, Dong Ziqiang, Gu Jianrong, Hua Ziyun, Li Tao, Liu Lina, Liu Weiling, Mo Qianyun, Ni Tonghui, Nie Kelu, Qiu Di, Tang Yan, Wang Fei, Xu Jihua, Yu Nianqun, Zeng Nannan, Zhang Chao, Zhang Meichen, Zhao Longfei, Zhao Peng, Zheng Yuan, Zhu Fangbai and Zhu Tianxiang (acrobats) and Chen Jiaojiao, Cheng Xin, Li Shichao, Wang Rongchao and Xu Longqiang (martial artists).
Running time: 100 minutes without intermission
Ticket prices: $25 to $250
“Monkey: Journey to the West” is scheduled to run through July 28