Last night I went to see MONKEY: JOURNEY TO THE WEST at Lincoln Center. This is a huge spectacular adaption of the classic story that was put together by director Chen Shi Zheng, Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett the last two are probably better known for their collaboration on the rock group Gorillaz. The show premiered back in 2007 at the Manchester International Festival festival and has played in several other cities since then.
A mix of theater, animation, dance, Peking Opera, circus and oh wow, the show boasts a huge cast of performers and characters that you usually don’t see on a New York stage, even in Broadway's mega productions.
The show tells the story of the Monkey King, who was born of a stone egg, he was too busy having fun until he realized he was going to die. Set on a quest to find immortality he ran afoul of the gods and the great Buddha who imprisoned him until he was released in order to protect a monk tasked with getting some sacred texts. The source novel is a massive story that has been the source of inspiration in world culture ever since it was written. It’s so massive a story that most artists only seek to tell a small portion of the story when using the characters (even the Shaw Brothers multi film retelling of the story only touched on the highlights of the tale). Here the story is reduced down to nine scenes covering high points of the story:
Scene 1 covers the birth of the monkey king and the realization that he was going to die. A monk names him the Monkey with the realization of emptiness.
Scene 2: Crystal Palace of the Eastern Sea- The monkey king under the sea where he gets his staff and armor
Scene 3 is the Monkey's invasion of the kingdom of heaven and the peach banquet
Scene 4 is Monkey's battle of wits with the Great Buddha that results in his imprisonment
Scene 5 covers Monkey’s release and meeting up with the monk and the other pilgrims
Scene 6 is The battle with the White Skeleton Demon which results in Monkey being banished when his friends think he’s killed humans
Scene 7 covers the spider women who try to eat the pilgrims but are defeated by a returning Monkey
Scene 8 -is the encounter with Princess Iron Fan
Scene 9 Paradise is where the pilgrims are rewarded for their good deeds.
The telling is kept simple giving the bare minimum to get the story across. (More detail is given in the notes in the Playbill and in the program book which was for sale)
My reaction to the show was largely Oh WOW.
As a spectacle the show is amazing with its wild flying fights, hands of god, giant statues, amazing costumes and acrobatics. It’s really really cool to look at. And trust me you may have seen pictures (here are a good selection of images from the Facebook page) but you still haven’t seen some of the visual delights in the show.
The music is less Eastern sounding then something that Phillip Glass cooked up when he was doing the music for Kundun.
The show is, for the most part a magical theatrical experience, but it’s not perfect.
For me the problems from the show come from three areas.
First the show is in Mandarin with super titles. While under normal circumstances this would be fine, here the show was billed as family event. I saw the show heavily advertised in places like Time Out New York Kids and other family friendly places. I'm good with that but the trouble is that unless a kid can read English or speak Mandarin the dialog, which does move things along, is going to be lost. Additionally some of the Buddhist philosophy that’s mixed is a bit heavy for kids (and some adults)
The second problem is that the breezy reduction of the story. While the reduction down to a series of nine or ten sequences allows for some truly spectacular set pieces, any the detail of what is really going on is lost. How did we get from place to place? Who are these people really?We don't know- we are never told who the horse is. Not a lot is explained and to be perfectly honest had I not been diving into the films based on the story recently (some of the Shaw Brothers films, the original Chinese animated feature Princess Iron Fan and the restored Monkey King:Uproar in Heaven) I would have felt adrift.
Third some of the stunts and acrobatics gets a little tiring. Yes the plate spinning is cool but it goes on and on and on to the point that it seems like the secret of enlightenment is to spin multiple plates at once. Actually some of the repetition makes the show feel like it’s stuck in the mud.
None of the problems are terminal either separately or together, but the do manage to make what should have been a truly great show across the board into a very good show with great moments.
Definitely recommended for the great moments.