I must confess: when the press release for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival came out earlier this spring including an grand spectacle that is Monkey: Journey to the West, a multimedia operatic endeavor with music penned by Damon Albarn, I was immediately excited. Featuring elements of Chinese opera, circus, Japanese Manga, plus music and video animations by Gorillaz – what was there not to like? – I thought. I hate to give the spoiler alert right away, but sometimes too much of a good thing does not add up to a good thing, judging from the work on display during this production’s opening-night performance this evening.

Heavenly Peach Banquet scene with Wang Lu as Monkey from the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of © Stephanie Berger
Heavenly Peach Banquet scene with Wang Lu as Monkey from the Lincoln Center Festival presentation of
© Stephanie Berger

Originally staged for the 2007 Manchester International Festival in the UK by the Chinese-born, New York-based director Chen Shi-Zheng, Monkey takes its inspiration from a widely known 16th-century Chinese fable of a monk’s westward journey to India in pursuit of ancient scriptures; along the way, he encounters many obstacles of the supernatural kind, but is aided and protected by a small cohort of animals. In this production, as the title aptly indicates, the monkey takes the center stage, with the monk character only showing up several scenes into the piece.

During the nearly two intermission-less hours, a sequence of nine scenes is presented, featuring a mostly brand-new cast of 41 performers. Unfortunately, some 20 minutes into the show, predictability sets in, and never lets off. Structurally speaking, the production feels a bit like an oversized Wii – each scene being the equivalent of a “level” in a video-game, in which one battles various (often exotic) obstacles until one is bored and advances to the next one. Minus the interactive part, I should add – in other words, it is as if the audience gets to watch the production team play the game, each scene roughly taking long enough for the show’s creators to “bang out the fireworks” before moving on to the next. (The “fireworks” being one form of circus arts or other – in one scene it is kung-fu fighting, then aerial silks, then contortion, and so on.) The director, according to the press materials, went through great lengths to cast the acrobats from a renowned academy in mainland China, but while their skills are evident, their talents feel egregiously underutilized in this production. Same goes for Mr Albarn – the music, as well as the acrobatics, frequently appear safe, or toned down, supposedly in service of the script, which is a hodge-podge on quasi-Zen platitudes, such as “Buddhism will save the world”, which could possibly fly with the non-Chinese-speaking audience that I am a part of (the show is performed in Mandarin), but the subtitles I feel compelled to read put the script’s weaknesses front and center.

I can imagine that the mash-up that is Monkey might possibly appeal to children, but given that this is not supposed to be a kids’ show, it is this garish display of verbal and visual Chinoiserie that makes the production numbing to a discerning audience member. It is puzzling to me that, in spite of the director’s background (as well as his cast, and the source material), the production feels more Chinatown than China.

Furthermore, in spite of its being touted as innovative, the production is indeed rather traditional, each of the nine scenes featuring a different painted backdrop – 19th-century opera-style, for instance – and with some transitions in blackout feeling interminable. I was looking forward to seeing what Jamie Hewlett – the artist who created illustrations for Gorillaz, the virtual band fronted by Mr Albarn – would cook up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the massively underutilized video design ended up being an utter disappointment also. Rather unimaginatively, most of the projections appeared in the transitions between different scenes, connecting the dots on the map of the monkey’s journeys – and even those interventions somehow disappeared some half way into the performance, as if Mr Hewlett himself got bored with the repetitiveness and figured “to hell with it”.

As I spilled out of the theatre along with the opening night crowds, I hastily scrolled down my iPhone playlist for a track off of Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, which did the trick as a palate-cleanser. If only this production had been half as exciting as one of Mr Albarn’s band’s video clips...

**111