Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monkey Be, Monkey Do: Monkey, Journey to the West

Monkeys and apes have been a problem to spiritual beliefs and mythology for a long time. They're too much like people to ignore, but they're distinctly animals, and act like it. They throw poop, they commit infanticide and they make strange noises. Consequently, they often play interesting roles in mythological literature.

Monkey: Journey to the West is a multimedia performance at Lincoln center based on the novel Journey to the West, one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese Literature. I haven't read this book, but it appears the authors have made an effort to be as loyal as possible to the text, or at least the central part of it. The book is about a journey by the monk Tripitaka(as he's called in the play, in the book he's named Xuanzang) to India to bring sacred Buddhist sutras back to the East.

The play includes Chinese acrobatics, dance, music, martial arts and animation. The style of animation will be familiar to anyone who's seen the work of animator Jamie Hewlett, the creator of Tank Girl and the "virtual band" Gorillaz. Mostly the animation is an intro to the main action in the first few scenes; I'd like to have seen more of it. Damon Albarn, the producer of Gorillaz, composed the music. But the music is very different in style from Gorillaz's. It's minimalist, combining Asian influences with some modern dance beats.

The stage is alive everywhere in this play, perhaps too much so. There's no way you can appreciate everything that's going on in a single performance. The acrobatics are sufficiently spectacular, with spinning plates, backflips and performers balancing in seemingly impossible ways upon each other. The acrobatics and martial arts scenes are more than engaging enough to entertain a child who is accustomed to manga and cartoon adventures, as my son is.

Tripitaka is the leader of the journey to the West, but the star is clearly Sun Wukong, AKA the Monkey King and Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Born out of a rock, he's a first-class ass-kicking superhero who is not defeated by anyone except the Buddha himself. But he's no saint. The first part of the play is devoted to Sun Wukong leaving his position as king of the monkeys to acquire superpowers, especially magical weaponry from the Old Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. But rather than using his powers for good, he immediately uses them to crash the Queen Mother of Heaven's Great Peach Banquet and chow down on her peaches. As a result, Buddha imprisons him for 500 years, and only releases him to protect Tripitaka on his journey.

The story itself is a syncretist combination of abstract principles of Buddhism with classical Chinese mythology. My wife, who's more knowledgeable about Buddhism than I am, suggested that Sun Wukong represents the mind as opposed to the spirit. Mythological ass-kicking is interspersed with serene Buddhist sermons about desire and suffering. It's hard to see what the two have to do with each other. Monkey is clearly the bridge between the two, but his role is unclear. My first thought was that the monkey represented the id. But that role is clearly played by Pigsy, one of Tripitaka's other guides. Pigsy is greedy and horny, and is first found devouring food out of a dumpster.

Tripitaka's other two assistants, the river ogre Sandy and his white horse, who is the Dragon Prince confined to equine form, play almost no role at all, though they're there for every scene. These characters, and even Pigsy, seem a wasted opportunity. Every one of Tripitaka's guides are superpowered beings who have committed great crimes. Pigsy sexually harassed a goddess, Sandy devoured people by a river, and the Dragon Prince burned down his father's castle. Clearly this is a journey of redemption for all of them, but they do almost nothing to earn the redemption, besides kicking ass on some demons. Their backgrounds are given to us by info-dumping introductory songs, and then play very little other role. The only exception to this is Pigsy, whose lust leads him to fall for the lures of a spider-woman seductress, allowing her to kidnap Tripitaka and nearly rape him.

So whatever redemption happens must happen through Sun Wukong. It seems that Sun Wukong's problem is not exactly excessive desire. When he steals the Queen of Heaven's delicious peaches (which take 1000 years to ripen), he barely nibbles on a few. Mostly he just kicks them to the floor. He seems more interested in kicking ass on the Queen of Heaven's guards. Later, he doesn't seem to be susceptible to the Spider woman's lures, though he's not around when she springs her trap.

It seems that the monkey's weakness is a need for physical and psychological dominance over everyone around him. But whether anything happens that's a redemption for that isn't clear. A climactic moment occurs when Tripitaka mistakenly dismisses Sun Wukong for excessive violence after he defeats a demon disguised as a young girl, and old woman and an old man. But the monkey was correct, since this demon was eager to eat the monk's flesh for eternal life. Nowhere does the monkey have to consider there might be another path to enlightenment besides kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.

Monkey: Journey the West is an amazing show, and incredibly entertaining. It's a great family show. After we saw it, my wife told me "You liked it for the mythology, and I liked it for the Buddhism," and my son said, "And I liked it because it was awesome!"

But the message of the piece is muddled, and the narrative is flawed and weakened by missed opportunities. It's possible that some of these weaknesses are part of the original work. But every work is its own, and loyalty to a classic text is no excuse for narrative failures. As much as I enjoyed the show, I can't help but wish they'd dug a little deeper.

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