Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation provides a delightful evening of tall-tale storytelling that reverberates with deeper meanings amid a cross-cultural context.
Journey to the West, adaptation by Mary Zimmerman from a translation by Anthony C. Yu. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Staged by the Nora Theatre Company at the Central Square Theater, Cambridge, MA, through December 31.
By Kamela Dolinova
As a white woman born, raised, and educated almost entirely in the Northeastern United States, my knowledge of non-Western literature is embarrassingly scant. As I prepared to review Journey to the West, it occurred to me that not only had I never read or seen an adaptation of this classic of Chinese literature, I had never even gotten around to reading Arabian Nights, the literary inspiration for the Nora Theatre Company’s holiday production for the past 5 years.
Of course, I’m well aware of the problematic ways these classic stories have been adapted to fit various ideological agendas over the past few hundred years. So I was cautiously excited about the production of this play, adapted by a white American director (Mary Zimmerman) and performed by a multi-racial cast. Two distinct possibilities made me wary: that the material would stick so close to the original that it would make the narrative indecipherable to the uninitiated; or that the adaptation would stray too far in the other direction and become the homogenized equivalent of Disney’s Aladdin.
Luckily, neither of my fears were warranted. The marvelous program note by assistant dramaturg Jiawei Cheng anticipated my anxieties. She entered into the project with similar worries. She was familiar with the epic from her childhood, and wondered how a play could encapsulate “all the sophistication, the history, the culture that are so uniquely Chinese.” Oft-adapted, with various levels of success, Journey was written sometime in the 16th century as a vehicle to mythologize the monk Xuanzang’s 7th century quest for Buddhist scriptures in India. Zimmerman’s imaginative approach answered Cheng’s questions: “What is lost in translation can be found elsewhere, and what is left untranslated makes room for the creation of new meanings.” The adaptation and the vibrant cast of the Nora Theatre Company production underline the material’s cultural universality, transmuting this epic tale into a contemporary entertainment. “Isn’t it strange,” Tripitaka the Monk asks after traveling tens of thousands of miles, “that these people seem the same as people back home?” This is not a glibly sentimental assertion: hearing this, the audience heaves a collective sigh of agreement. Wherever you go, there you are.
Zimmerman’s adaptation provides a delightful evening of tall-tale storytelling that reverberates with deeper meanings amid a cross-cultural context. The trickster figure, Monkey, delights us with his boldness and defiance of rules, in much the same way that similar figures from around the world – Coyote, Anansi, Loki, Kitsune – have from time immemorial. The hero’s journey – with its trials and tests and despair and triumphs, turns out to follow a very familiar path. Dependence on these recognizable tropes make some of the obvious differences from convention starker and more effective. In most Western myths and heroes’ tales, the hero hacks and slashes his way through monsters and villains to attain his goal. In this story, the message is a plea against violence: case in point, the Monk places a magical band around Monkey’s head to stop him from beating up and killing people whenever things go wrong.
It’s a cunning reversal for a play that is meant to appeal to kids in the holiday season: monsters are not killed but bargained with, or a god descends and gives the monster a chance to become a good person. In fact, two of the Monk’s party are former monsters, forced to serve the cause as punishment for ill acts committed earlier in their lives. The Monk and the Monkey get them to relinquish their wicked ways. The four of them form a Wizard of Oz-like group of misfits (there’s even a direct reference made to the film) on a search for truth that will fulfill their destinies. Accordingly, the story’s vision is profoundly collectivist in a way few Western tales are: it is only by joining together and acting as one — without wallowing in doubts or selfishness — that the four are able to attain their goals.
Don’t think the proceedings are all that didactic or hifalutin’. This is an irreverent, fun and, at times, beautiful piece of theatre. The NTC production – like Journey itself – is a delicious (and eclectic) mix of high and low. In terms of visuals, there’s the exquisitely painted set pieces by David Fichter and the pleasingly simple costumes by Leslie Held. The latter suggest the fantastical while giving the performers much-needed flexibility for rapid changes of character. In an improvised entr’acte, some members of the ensemble perform a rap based on Buddhist scripture; in another scene, the stunning Sophrol Ngin enacts a formal, ritualized dance that looks as if it has been pulled straight from her days performing Cambodian classical ballet. This mix-and-match juxtaposition establishes a creative context that is loose and free, even casual, punctuated by moments of visual splendor. Top-flight performers are working with a ragtag group of young actors, all of them committed — with a rough and tender joy — to telling the story at hand.
Anchoring the evening is the dependably marvelous Tommy Derrah as the Jade Emperor. The role could have been written for this stalwart of Boston theater: he brings his peculiar combination of sincerity and wry knowingness to the role. He also seems to relish spending the pre-curtain time schmoozing with the kids in the audience. Jordan Clark, whose performance in Significant Other was a highlight of that production, plays a sweetly comic Guanyin, the boddhisattva of compassion who sends the characters on their madcap adventures. Sophorl Ngin plays the Buddha in female form and, besides performing the dance mentioned above, is responsible for a number of profoundly emotional moments. Jesse Garlick provides a lovely turn as Tripitaka, the Monk charged with retrieving the scriptures from the Western Heaven; his anxiety and cowardice along the way do not diminish his charming innocence. Playing the aforementioned “monsters” of the party: Shanae Burch as Pig, the slovenly and gluttonous sidekick who, nonetheless, wins us over with his bravery and loyalty; and Harsh J. Gagoomal as Sha Monk, the river monster who almost eats Tripitaka before being sent on a redemptive mission. Both of the actors create wonderful foils to the overly serious Tripitaka: Burch’s comic timing is excellent, and Gagoomal’s huge expressive eyes speak volumes.
But the production’s most impressive star is dancer/actor Lynn R. Guerra. Her Monkey King is a fully realized, hilariously dynamic character who is amusing to watch from beginning to end. Guerra’s portrait of Monkey is strenuously physical; she walks upright most of the time, but the performance is not adverse to adopting a dropped stance, with hanging arms and a loose gait. She also comes up with screeching calls that bring the brilliant, if mischievous, figure to vibrant life. Throughout the show’s two and a half hours, Guerra never ceases ambling, jumping, climbing, tumbling, stick-fighting, and otherwise bouncing her way through the action. Light, funny, and totally winning, Guerra knows that the success of Journey to the West depends on how well its central figure charms children. She gives the Monkey King all the star power the character demands.
The remaining ensemble members do a superb job keeping the piece moving: Trevor Liu is particularly haunting as the king of a region that has been taken over by rat spirits; Will Madden shines as the languid Dragon King, as well as a nerdy bureaucrat in the Underworld. And attention must be paid to Ryan Meyer’s mesmerizing score: he spends the show playing xylophone and other percussion instruments, appearing once on stage to conduct a haunting a capella song. His quiet music calls the audiences and actors to order; he uses softly tinkling bells to immerse us into the magical world of the play.
And immersed we are: Journey to the West is a delight for adults and children alike. At intermission, the audience is fed on milk and cookies, a homey nod to the fact that this is the best kind of honest storytelling — it nurtures the spirit.
Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.