I have blogged from time-to-time about Monkey: Journey to the West. Monkey is an ancient Chinese folk novel written (as best we know) by Wu Cheng-en, first published in 1592. It is one of my favorite books, one of my family’s favorite books. My wife has referred to it as the family totem. Monkey is a fictional re-telling of an historical pilgrimage. It is the story of the priest Xuanzang, who walked from China to India (and back again) in order to bring holy Buddhist scriptures to China. The story is part fantasy, part adventure story, deeply spiritual and at the same time famously irreverent.
When my son was little, I used to read him bedtime stories from Monkey. He’s not little any more. Last night, he took the train up from Washington DC and today we went to see an amazing new production of Monkey: Journey to the West, at Lincoln Center in NYC.
I first read Monkey some 40 years ago, about the same time I first read Lord of the Rings, and I have always found a certain similarity between the books. So I was pleased to read this quote today from Chen Shi-Zeng who lead the creative team that created the production. “When I moved to the U.S. in 1987, I saw Star Wars and heard fanciful stories like Lord of the Rings, and I wished everyone could know of the wildly imaginative, Chinese story about the Monkey King and his journey to the West.” I don’t think Wu Cheng-en could ever have imagined how his story would be re-imagined more than 400 years later, but I think he would be pleased.
Today’s performance was extraordinary, both visually and musically, mixing animation and live action, part Chinese opera, part acrobatics, Chinese circus and dance, martial arts, music and aerial choreography. Music for the performance was composed by Damon Albarn. The visual concepts, animation and costumes were the work of Jamie Hewlett, Perhaps you will recognize Albarn and Hewlett from Gorillaz. (Sometimes it comes in handy to have a 23 year-old son to explain this stuff to me).
The cast was amazing, especially when you take into account the flying and the tumbling, the plates spinning and the swords flashing, not to mention the singing, dancing and acting.
I realize this is last minute, but there are only two performances remaining, tomorrow (Sunday) at 2:00 and at 8:00. If you are in NYC and you don’t have plans, you need to go to Lincoln Center.
I should probably mention that the entire two hour performance is in Mandarin (except for one very brief and very funny exchange when two actors momentarily step out of character). There is a screen above the stage with subtitles, but it is largely unnecessary. If you’re not familiar with the story, read the synopsis in the playbill and then sit back and take in the spectacle. This is a once in a lifetime theater experience.
(photo retrieved from nytimes.com)