Lincoln Center's 'Monkey' is East's 'Wizard of Oz'
"Monkey: Journey to the West" is a picaresque, superhero-comic project at the Lincoln Center Festival. It reads like a cross between “The Wizard of Oz” and Cirque du Soleil.
Turning a 16th-century Chinese novel into a touring show with acrobats, actors, contortionists and an orchestra pit full of Eastern and Western musicians was director Chen Shi-Zheng’s wild idea. Stuffed into 100 minutes, performed in Mandarin with English supertitles and music by Damon Albarn and Gorillaz, “Monkey: Journey to the West” pays tribute to a book Chen discovered when he was 8 years old.
That may explain the picaresque, superhero-comic aspect of the project, onstage at the Lincoln Center Festival, which reads like a cross between “The Wizard of Oz” and Cirque du Soleil. The Monkey King, hatched from a huge stone egg, behaves like a brat kid, throwing tantrums and killing people when he doesn’t get what he wants. In a yellow hoodie, he roams Asia (abetted by Jamie Hewlett’s scenery, animation and costumes) until the Buddha’s giant hand shuts him down for 500 years. Demons and fairies fly around to torture or assist him; he’s assigned the job of protecting a handsome young monk and a white horse (originally a dragon) heading to India to receive sacred information. He assembles a posse including a Falstaffian pig; they travel through Hell en route to Paradise.
Think of Shrek and his donkey, or the gang from “The Wizard of Oz" — only with Chinese plate-spinners, martial artists and stunning women on silk trapezes. “Monkey” fills the Koch proscenium, mobilizing a panda on a mountaintop and flying demons, queens and a giant starfish.
More light on the stunning landscapes would be welcome, and the piece is about 15 minutes too long, but it’s a fabulous trip.