The Monkey King!
Last night I went to go see Monkey: Journey to the West with Jennifer. It has been pretty thoroughly advertised in the city, but in case you don't know what it is-- it is basically Chinese opera & acrobatics, filtered through The Gorillaz. Chen Shi-Zheng directed it & Damon Albarn & Jamie Hewlett did the composing & visual concept work; the three of them really created a pretty great pitch. Maybe you know the story of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who hatched from a stone struck by lighting & immediately declares himself blasphemously to be the Great Sage Equal to Heaven. It is an intensely Chinese story while at the same time being an intensely archetypal story; it is a story of the clash between Buddhism & Taoism & temporal politics, as well as a story of a mythic trickster...who learns a certain kind of enlightenment along the way. Relatedly, this is why when Gene Luen Yang Christianized the story in American Born Chinese I sort of struggled with it. On one hand, the fact that it is a very adaptable story makes me want to consider adaptation to be a good thing; on the other, it is an intensely Buddhist (& Daoist in trappings, but mostly Buddhist in message) story & making it Christian sort of feels like missing the point.
As for the production itself, it is a lot of fun. The first half is much more "Gorillaz-y" & the second half is much more "Chinese Opera-y" but the best parts of it, by far, where when those overlapped...which was quite frequently. I liked it a lot. We had "nose bleed" seats pretty high up, so let me get that out of the way first. Being up high meant I didn't get to see the costume design as much as I would have liked, but part of the point of opera & acrobatics is to telegraph your performance, right? The action on stage was pretty intelligible, especially the Monkey King's antics & the acrobats. There was some action high up on the stage that the angle cut off, but thems the breaks. When we saw Uncle Vanya up in the tippy-top of the audience, it was a pain in the neck-- literally!-- but here because so much of it is song & dance & contortion, it wasn't as big of a hurdle. Seriously though, maybe I should get opera glasses, some classy binoculars.
The star of the show-- obviously-- is the actor who plays Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. His acting is...predominantly primate pantomime? A lot of monkey-like chirps & hisses, scratching & stomping. Very fun; I started cracking up from the first moment he was on stage. My favorite parts of him were his entrance-- I just think it is hilarious that the Monkey King hatches from a stone & then is like, "I'm cooler than Jesus & Buddha! Oh no, I need to be immortal!" like, first thing. Cracks me up. That, & I really liked his "rap battle" with Princess Iron Fan. Oh, & I really like that after the boy-monk Tripitaka exiles him from the adventuring party-- what, you don't see a high level cleric, a goblin warrior, a pig-man & the Monkey King as a Dungeons & Dragons group? I did!-- he goes off into a side stage & sulks & smokes cigarettes. When the goblin Sandy comes to get him, they break the scene by speaking in English...& the monster chides him for smoking. Apart from that I would say that over-all my favorite scene, & side character, is White Skeleton Demon. Her glow-in-the-dark costume & lilting paean to cannibalism was spooky & wondrous. Me, I liked the first half the best, when Monkey King is mostly just a real jerk & there are plenty of animated interludes; Jenny liked the latter half better. I have to admit...I'd slept poorly all week & woke up at five in the morning, so as things slowed down & the amphitheater heated up, I had to pinch my skin a couple times. Not flattering but I should be honest about what might be biasing me.