The Lincoln Center Festival's Monkey: Journey to the West

By Steven Suskin
July 10, 2013

The 18th season of the Lincoln Center Festival got off to a visually splendorous start last evening with Monkey: Journey to the West.



Based on the classic Chinese novel by Wu Cheng'en (circa 1592), Monkey fills the stage of the David H. Koch Theatre with actors, singers, martial artists and acrobats against massive scenery, colorful costumes, stunning visuals and full-scale animation.

Monkey is conceived, written and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, the Chinese-born New Yorker who made an auspicious debut at Lincoln Center Festival in 1999 with his 20-hour version of The Peony Pavilion. Music comes from Damon Albarn, while visual concept, animation and costumes are by Jamie Hewlett. (Albarn and Hewlett are creators of the musical collective Gorillaz.) Brad Lubman leads the band of twelve, stocked with some exotic instruments as well as contemporary sounds, including honking car horns.

Wang Lu and Cao Yangyang alternate in the title role of Sun Wu-Kong, "Monkey who Understands Emptiness." (Unlike the resplendently-cloaked others, he is costumed in something that looks like a yellow tracksuit, and sometimes eats bananas.) That understanding of emptiness sends him on an odyssey across the world to find immortality. Along the road he meets with four characters who team together to find some sacred texts and bring them safely back home. In the final scene, they are all rewarded by the great and powerful Buddha.

If this sounds similar to "The Wizard of Oz," that's because it is. Journey to the West was written three hundred years earlier, but Chen Shi-Zheng clearly pays homage to the M-G-M film. No matter, as the similarity in some ways makes Monkey easier to follow. The show is performed in Mandarin, but thanks to handy subtitles, it's easily comprehensible. Performed in one act, without intermission, Monkey: Journey to the West clocks in at two hours.

The cast of 46 includes 28 acrobats, many of whom are members of the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company. Much of what they do is familiar to followers of Cirque du Soleil troupes. Here, though, the often dazzling feats are woven into the plot. Some of the scenes — the Heavenly Peach Banquet, the Spider Woman, Princess Iron Fan — are altogether exciting mixtures of scenery, costume, movement and frequent fighting.

Monkey: Journey to the West premiered in 2007 as a coproduction of the Manchester [England] International Festival and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It has subsequently been staged at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston and at the O2 Arena in London. Lincoln Center has given the piece a prime spot in this summer's Festival, as the opening and closing attraction with 27 performances through July 28.

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Wang Lu and the cast of Monkey: Journey to the West
Photo by Stephanie Berger