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Posted Sep 19, 2012, 10:35 am
This is the last week to catch the Rogue Theatre’s season opener, “Journey to the West.”
Theatre goers with a taste for the exotic and for spectacle rarely mounted by a community troupe will be particularly pleased.
The play is based on a ancient Chinese tale about the Buddha sending a monk from China to India with scriptures to assist in enlightenment. Swathed in ancient mythos, the tale postulates a world where men, intelligent monkeys, demons and immortals roam freely.
The play by Mary Zimmerman finds its source material in China’s “Journey to the West,” one of that culture’s four classic novels, codified into a 100 chapter epic in the 17th Century. The journey is also an allegory of the individual’s struggle with desire and baser instinct to achieve Enlightenment.
A large-cast epic journey
Rogue’s interpretation involves a multi-level stage, 14 actors playing some 40 gods, immortals, demons, humans and animals, elaborate costuming, plus live music developed specifically for this show.
The play, which condenses the original tome, first introduces the Monkey King, played by Patty Gallagher, who desires immortality. The gods find this amusing and make him their lowly stable boy. When he finally realizes the insult, the now immortal Monkey King becomes a threat and is imprisoned under a mountain.
The Buddha selects a young monk, Tripitaka, played by Christopher Johnson, as the bearer to transport his sacred texts to India, a metaphorical journey of 108,000 miles through mystic realms. Guayin, a goddess, guides the monk to free the Monkey King as his first companion to assist in the quest. Along the way, they enlist two other out-of-favor immortals to accompany them and help overcome the many obstacles they face.
Ultimately, all are changed by the journey. The fellowship not only delivers the manuscripts, but also finds redemption from individual past sins, achieving enlightenment. In the end, the play becomes shifts from the physical to the cerebral, effectively mirroring the stillness of mind represented by nirvana.
Caveats and kudos
Unfortunately, good dogma is not necessarily great theatre, and some may not appreciate this ensuing calm bordering on stasis, which contrasts so strongly with the show’s earlier, more engaging physicality. Some may also disengage from the complex underlying Buddhist doctrine, especially in the subplot of its battle for superiority against Taoism.
Gallagher, a Rogue regular with extensive credentials in movement, dance and clown traditions, does an outstanding job as the Monkey King. Her extreme display of physical comedy, especially in the first half of the show, is reason enough to catch this production.
Of special note is the well researched musical score, written by Paul Amiel, and performed by him with the assistance of Julie Wypych. Rather than generic oriental music, Amiel samples the ethnic music of the regions along the route, subtly shifting tonality and modes to reflect the journey itself. He presents a short pre-show concert that serves as a primer on Chinese music, performed on authentic instruments.
The play has elaborate fight and dance sequences, broad, earthy humor and, throughout, great spectacle. The gorgeous silk costuming, designed by director Cynthia Meier, elegantly enhances the pageantry. “Journey to the West” is a richly textured visual and auditory extravaganza well worth experiencing.