Sunday, June 22, 2008

Monkey:Journey to the West or Curious George Finds Enlightenment

June 9, 2008
The show itself is a metaphysical journey, challenging what it means to be an opera at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Monkey, Journey to the West is a very ancient Buddhist folk tale passed down for 1,400 years. Over the centuries, people basically took a young monk’s trip in collecting Buddha’s sacred text from India to China then spin it into a children’s fairy tale, embellished with humanistic animals, fairies, and demons. Here is how Monkey is born.
Actually, the producer/director, Chen Shi-Zheng gave birth to the production as a “circus opera.” He wants to showcase the best of traditional Chinese marital opera but enliven it for the twenty- first century by making it contemporarily relevant when Blur’s/Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn and illustrator James Hewitt came on board to compose the techno-rock composition and design set, costumes, and makeup. The main character, the Monkey King or just plain, “Monkey,” was decked out in a yellow Adidas tracksuit with black racing stripes, identical to what Uma Thurman wore in “Kill Bill.”

The kung-fu acrobatics are breathe-taking but the cheeky humor keeps this action-packed musical warm, light-hearted, and understanding for the audience. Monkey is not only marital arts powerhouse but a mischievous imp who gets himself in all sorts of scrapes. His straight-forward honesty is hilarious.

Watching the 60 plus cast of the Dalian Acrobatic Troupe flinging and flying through the air in harnesses and contorting themselves into pretzels and hats while singing Mandarin arias to a rock lullaby is a rare spectacle unto itself. Because of the physical tenacity, Chen specifically hires teenagers limber enough to twist then tumble, packed with adolescent energy required for this opera. He auditions them at fifteen, trains them for two years, then they’re ready to tackle the stage at 18. By the time, they’re seasoned but sore and stiff professionals, he has no choice but to retire them by 20 or 21. This is more rigorous than Cirque du Soliel, the troupe that defined “circus opera.” At least, they give twenty-somethings a chance.

The opera is split into two acts. The birth and introduction of Monkey then Monkey’s redemption and the actual journey. The first act was the premise of Monkey. The opening animation montage of his birth out of a stone egg then the whimsical live acts sets his impetuous character and personality. The funniest scene was when he went shopping for weapons in a undersea workshop of his own selfish quest of immorality. He rejected every spear and bow. The sea monster/shopkeeper even suggested a guided missile. But Monkey settled on a chain mail crop jacket, a helmet, a magical rod, and cloud-hopping shoes before he located the Peaches of Immorality at the Queen Mother’s party then trashed it. He slays sword-wielding guests on unicycles and scared off flying fairies on harnesses. With the Queen crying out for help, Buddha reaches out his 15 ft. long hand to Monkey, asking him to surrender without harm. Uh-huh, said the Monkey. Flipping over, Buddha traps him in his palm and keeps him there for the next 500 years.

The second act and the real action start when Monkey is paroled if he escorts a young monk in getting Buddha’s sacred text in India. Thus, the “Journey to the West” begins. Monkey’s fighting prowess shines in fight scenes with deceptive Cannibals who want to munch on the monk for their own immorality. The funniest scene is when Monkey reluctantly saves the monk’s virginity from the sexy silk aerialist Spider Woman, ensnaring him in her web. The real battle was when they had to cross volcanoes of Fiery Mountain. To get Iron Mountain Princess’ huge fire-proof fan, Monkey had to battle every marital arts weapons conceived, from whirling chain whips to double-edged swords, with his magical rod. The athleticism and agility ought to be applauded for the high levels of skill and endurance. Doing these advance, complicated stunts for two hours on nightly basis for two whole weeks isn’t for the prim and proper faint of heart. This is why Monkey is an extraordinary, rare treat. No everyone can do this. Mentioned earlier, even these performers can’t do this forever before their bodies break. Monkey is a glimpse of an athlete’s brief peak performance in their late teens.

After crossing the volcanoes, they reach India and found the sacred texts. The 35 ft. tall Buddha rewards them with well-earned enlightenment. The young monk becomes a priest. Proving his bravery and self-sacrifice, the more mature Monkey was appointed Buddha of Military Victory.
The following thunderous applause and uninterrupted sold-out performances for two weeks straight is a good sign that this is a hit and a crowd-pleaser that reached a wide swath of age groups, from eighty-years old to eight. This is the much-needed boost to Spoleto USA’s financial bottom line which has suffered a deficit throwing tried but tired reproductions of classic stand-bys that jaded Charlestonians has seen repeatedly for the past thirty years that some become Spoleto clich├ęs. “Porgy & Bess,” anyone? Monkey and the new audience it brings is a fresh infusion of new blood that the organization needs. By throwing Monkey, Spoleto proves it can throw cosmopolitan showcases and compete on the greater world stage. For a Spoleto production, it was awe-inspiring and a fresh breathe-taker.

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