Monkeys On My Mind: JOURNEY TO THE WEST

Presented by The Nora Theatre Company & Underground Railway Theater
Adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the translation by Anthony C. Yu of “Hsi Yu Chi”
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Choreography by Judith Chaffee
Fight choreography by Andrew Moss
Composition, Percussion & Music Collaborations by Ryan Meyer

Nov. 25 – Dec. 31, 2016
Central Square Theater
Cambridge, MA
Central Square Theater on Facebook

Review by Kitty Drexel

Trigger warnings: gender fluid casting, non-Christian religions that existed before the birth of Christ

(Cambridge, MA) Journey to the West is excellent family theatre. It has joyful storytelling, runs a little long, but delivers an epic myth in child-sized bites. There are bouncing monkeys, kings and queens, educational morals, and integrated behavioral psychology lessons. It has a little something for every intelligent, open-minded liberal.  

Based on the Ming Dynasty, 16th Century  In the play, first the Monkey King (symbolizing the monkey mind which may only be tamed through mental and physical practice (played by Lynn R. Guerra)) expresses his desire to obtain immortality. On his way to obtaining immortality, M. K. finds himself entombed for years and years and years underneath a mountain. He is rescued by a Monk (AKA Lake Tripitaka, AKA Dat Monk Tho’ as played by Jesse Garlick) traveling from the East to the West to collect the scrolls of enlightenment.  He makes many friends, and gains disciples along the way. All sorts of fun, sometimes not fun, but always spiritually significant adventures ensue.  

Please note that Journey to the West does not shy away from the struggles of life. 16th Century China isn’t presented in all its ancient glory, but its characters still live through some rough patches. There’s death, all-encompassing lust, unbridled violence, and heaps of other naughty behaviors. It is child-friendly, but there could very well be some complex conversations after viewing.

The show is accompanied by the chilling marimba compositions of Ryan Meyer. Meyer was the foley for the ensemble. He also bravely joined the action onstage as mis en scene conductor for acapella singing. It was genuinely nice, dare I say refreshing, to see a musician leap into the dramatic fray with the actors. Bravo, Mr. Meyer.     

The entire cast is just lovely. They tell an excellent story excellently. Their telling is full of sincere joy; their ensemble work was fueled by their mutual creative energies. From where we sat, we could tell that every cast member was having a sincerely good time sharing The Journey of the West with us. It felt like we were experiencing something special.

Guerra is super duper fun as Monkey King. She leaps with agility, and gives great personification to her wild, uncensored monkey character. Above and beyond Guerra’s great work though, is the work of her choreographers. Moss and Chaffee sculpted impressive choreography for the entire cast, not all of which have the same training as Guerra. They staged dancing and fighting for all levels of ability. They ensured that the most to the least experienced were dramatically appropriate, and most importantly, safely in control of their actions. 

Journey to the West a story about teamwork, friendship, trust, discipline, problem solving, good behavior, courtesy, kindness, loyalty, generosity, and above all, dedication. It’s told through Buddhist principles but is universal in its truths. While Journey is full of lessons (and reminders) for all ages, it runs long. Younger audience members may need more breaks than the one intermission but older, more patient kiddos will have a grand time once the fourth wall breaks.

My apologies to the good folk at Central Square Theater. I saw the performance on Wednesday evening and promptly fell ill with Krampus’ monster lurgy. My mind was willing but my body was weak.

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