Recently, the Lincoln Center Festival sent factions of publicists to Flushing malls and indie comedy venues, attempting to draw both Chinese-Americans and hipsters to Monkey: Journey to the West. They have met with much success, both with these demographics and beyond. Sure, concerts, films, and cocktails compete for our attention and entertainment dollars, but just how many semi-animated, circus-drunk, Mandarin-language pop operas based on Taoist legend are you likely to see this summer?
Damon Albarn (formerly of the band Blur and the composer of some of the most buoyant, slyly literate ’90s chart hits) teams with his Gorillaz collaborator, designer-animator Jamie Hewlett, to offer an ambient-electro-pop-orchestral take on the legend of the Monkey King, apparently as foundational a story in the East as the Homeric epics are here in the West. Lincoln Center regular Chen Shi-Zheng supplies the text and also directs this visually lush, kinetically dazzling spectacle—ancient myth for the Xbox generation.
Based on a 1592 Chinese novel, itself based on oral tradition, Monkey concerns a charming lout (played at a recent preview by Wang Lu) with a swaggering walk, a swinging tail, and a great enthusiasm for scratching his genitals. Wielding a magical rod and cloud-jumping boots, he storms heaven, feasting on peaches that grant him immortality. His careless violence angers the typically impassive Buddha, who imprisons him for 500 years. Upon his release, which finds him mildly chastened but still a steadfast crotch-grabber, Monkey teams with a pig, a sand demon, and a white horse to guard a devout monk in search of Buddhist sutras.
As this mismatched band treks toward India, they encounter skeletons, volcanoes, spider women, and an unusual number of acrobats, contortionists, and wire-walkers. Each new environment Hewlett offers elicits gasps, as do his extraordinary costumes, with a considerable assist from Bertrand Dorcet’s masks, prosthetics, makeup, and wigs. The gymnastics are virtuosic—the occasional error only seems to underline the tremendous skill required. And if Albarn’s music doesn’t wholly distinguish itself, the songs cleverly merge both Western and Chinese modes and instruments.
But these various elements, no matter how discretely excellent, lack cohesion. Often, they stack up atop one another like the show’s lithe acrobats. Though the production has toured for years, the scenes don’t always flow together, and there are awkward pauses as the scrim descends on one tableau and opens on the next. The journey proper doesn’t begin until halfway through the show, and even then epic narrative frequently takes a backseat to one more athletic display or martial arts routine. Each impresses, but when you know your trusty gang has 81 trials to overcome, sometimes you wish they’d just get on with them.
As a consequence, Monkey, though wonderfully imaginative and commendably playful, may set your own monkey mind wandering. (If this is some sneaky Buddhist trick to goad us into radical nonattachment—well done!) Even as a narrative arc from ruffianism to redemption clearly suggests itself, new episodes seem less part of a coherent tale and more along the lines of leveling up. At the show’s end, Monkey receives the honorific of “Buddha Victorious in Battle.” And as glad as you feel for him, you may also experience some shameful relief at this enlightened version of “Game Over.”