News Column

'Monkey' Brims With Energy, Chinese Style

June 30, 2013


China's opening up to the West has been most visible in commerce. But the arts, too, have seen significant exchanges.

In the case of the aptly named "Monkey: Journey to the West," which will open the Lincoln Center Festival on Saturday night, the connection has gone a step further.

The show, which suggests a blend of "The Lion King" and "Cirque du Soleil" on steroids, is a Chinese-British collaboration, with music by rock songwriter-singer Damon Albarn and design and animation by Jamie Hewlett, the co-creators of the virtual English band Gorillaz.

Chen Shi-Zheng, the youthful-looking creator and director of the show, said he'd been looking for a way to adapt the story, taken from a 16th-century Chinese novel, for the stage.

"This is a dream come true," he said at a press preview in New York last week, speaking first in English and then translating into Mandarin. "Everyone in China knows the novel. This was my favorite story when I was growing up, and I've always wanted to bring it to a broad audience in the West."

The 50-year-old Chen, who was born in Hunan, received a master's degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is now based in New York.

The novel tells the myth-like story of a Chinese Buddhist monk and his journey to India in search of sacred texts. On the trip, which is beset with challenges both human and supernatural, he is guided and protected by a small group of disciples, including a monkey and a pig.

Onstage, the tale is told as a musical-visual spectacle, with elements of opera, dance, animation, circus acrobatics and martial arts. There's colorful scenery, fantastical costumes and a score that combines the sounds of East and West.

The 95-minute production is in Mandarin, with English supertitles, but Chen said dialogue is secondary.

"The book has one hundred chapters. We used nine of them, ones without too much language."

To recruit performers, he returned to China.

"It took me six months. Traditional Chinese circus acrobats have become harder and harder to find," he said, adding that many of them had gone to work for Cirque du Soleil.

At the preview, several cast members performed scenes that displayed their skills, which were familiar-looking -- but with the addition of jaw-dropping degrees of difficulty.

The plate twirlers raised the ante by standing on their heads as they held the spinning plates aloft. A woman balanced, on her feet, not one or two umbrellas, but around eight.

Co-ed martial artists leaped and charged, clashing swords and poles, seeming to come within inches of causing serious harm. It was like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but without the camera tricks.

"Monkey," which was first presented in 2007 at the Manchester International Festival in England and has had several productions since, including one at the Spoleto Festival USA in South Carolina in 2008, is the centerpiece of this year's Lincoln Center Festival, and the multi-arts event has a lot riding on it.

Unlike other productions, which have two to seven performances, the expensive-to-mount "Monkey" is running the length of the festival, through July 28. And it's housed in a very large space, the 2,500-seat David H. Koch Theater.

"We were very eager to have the show," said Nigel Redden, the festival's director. "It's a story that's captured the imaginations of young people in Asia for many years."

Referring to Chen's past work at the festival, notably his celebrated 1999 production of the classic Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," Redden said, "He has the ability to take Chinese classics and make them vibrantly accessible to Western audiences. This show is a wonderful introduction for those who are less familiar with Chinese culture."

Tickets for "Monkey: Journey to the West," which range from $25 to $250, may be purchased by calling 212-721-6500, or at lincoln

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