SPECTACLE: Cast members of Monkey: Journey to the West rehearse at SUNY Purchase college (STEPHANIE BERGER)
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Monkey: Journey to the West debuts in New York July 9 at the Lincoln Center Festival.
The 110-minute spectacle of acrobatics, animation, kungfu and an eclectic musical score follows the journey of Chinese folk hero the Monkey King, or Sun Wukong in Chinese, to the West (today's India) along with monk Tripitaka or Xuanzang in Chinese and his followers. The Monkey King is a well-known and beloved character in China but this futuristic take on the classic story is a different entity entirely.
The show made its first appearance at the Manchester International Festival in England in 2007. It then showed in Paris and at the Spoleto Festival USA and the Royal Opera House in London. Bringing it to New York City feels like "coming home," said writer and director Chen Shi-Zheng.
"I have always wanted to bring it to New York," Chen said. "Taking it home is like a dream come true."
Chen has had a long relationship with the Lincoln Center Festival, beginning with an epic staging of Peony Pavilion in 1999, followed by The Night Banquet in 2002, The Orphan of Zhao in 2003 and My Life as a Fairytale in 2005.
"I've been very eager to bring [Monkey] to the festival since seeing it in Manchester," says Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival. "It's great for China newbies. The story is unfamiliar to most Americans but is a drama that all of us can enjoy and it captures the imagination."
Taking Chinese classics and making them "accessible" for Western audiences is a hallmark of Chen Shi-Zheng, Redden says.
"We have had a long relationship since Peony Pavilion," he says, adding that Chen is directing another performance – Japanese play Matsukaze – at this year's festival.
"I hesitate to say that Monkey is the centerpiece of the festival because each performance is special. There are many highlights, including Matsukaze."
For Monkey, Chen collaborated with Damon Albarn, from British band Blur, and artist Jamie Hewlett. Albarn and Hewlett are the creators of the virtual band Gorillaz and its signature fusion of hip-hop, pop, electronica and rock. Hewlett's manga-inspired animations and characters are used to great effect in Monkey with a dancing purple octopus and crustacean-adorned, pink plate spinners floating around the stage. The Monkey King himself is wearing a Bruce Lee-striped tracksuit and sneakers as he takes on the evil Spider Woman.
It's the type of classic adventure story that delights audiences and the modern approach will surely draw in a new type of crowd to the Lincoln Center Festival. The genesis of the musical itself, says Chen, was to expose new audiences to a classic story. Journey to the West is a 16th century novel by Wu Cheng'en. It is one of four most famous classics of ancient China.
"I took nine chapters from the novel that can be understood without too much dialogue, in order to reach a broad audience in the West," Chen said.
When creating the musical, Chen invited his collaborators on a trip to the Chinese countryside, where they took photographs and field recordings of folk musicians to form the foundations of the musical direction.
The opera is sung in Mandarin (with English subtitles), and the cast was cultivated in Beijing. The acrobats are from the Jiangsu Yancheng Acrobatic Company.
The action-packed fight sequences and colorful costumes appeal to all ages, says Redden.
"Imagine The Lord of the Rings being done by the Chinese State Circus in the style of House of Flying Daggers, and you are some way towards understanding the appeal of Monkey," writes Kitty Empire, for The Observer.
"I hope people bring their families," Redden says. "I brought my 14-year-old son and my 11-year-old daughter and they loved it. There is tremendous appeal for children and for adults and they want to see it again and again."
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
The Story of Monkey: Journey to the West
A man-monkey hatches from a stone egg in mythical China and becomes consumed with the thought of his own mortality. He travels the world to find a teacher, Subodhi, who gives him the name Sun Wukong – The Monkey Cognizant of Emptiness. He dives into the Eastern Sea to be given a weapon, a magical iron rod, from the Old Dragon King and then flies to heaven to demand to be recognized as a god. When he arrives in heaven he finds and eats some magical peaches that belong to the Queen Mother of Heaven. Incensed, the Queen Mother asks Buddha to deal with the monkey pest.
Buddha imprisons the Monkey King for 500 years, after which he is freed to accompany the monk Tripitaka on a quest to bring back sacred scriptures from India. Accompanying them is a pig-man named Pigsy, a straight-laced boar (a former general for the supreme Jade Emperor) reincarnated as a demon named Sandy and a dragon prince that takes the form of a white horse. The five battle the White Skeleton Demon, the seductive Spider Woman and Princess Iron Fan before arriving in paradise and receiving their reward from heaven.