Presented by White Snake Projects
Based on Journey to the West
Libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs
Composed by Jorge Sosa
Stage direction by Roxanna Myhrum
Music direction by Tianhui Ng
Puppet design by Tom Lee and Chicago Puppet Studio
Featuring Chuanyuan Liu, Dylan Morrongiello, Carami Hilaire, Cristina Maria Catro, John Paul Huckle, Maria Dominique, Lopez, Carlos Jose Torres Lopez, Nathaniel Justiniano, Angelo Guo, Eliott Purcell, Lawrence Chan, Amanda Gibson, VOICES Boston
September 23 – 24, 2023
Emerson’s Paramount Center Theater
559 Washington St
Review by Maegon Bergeron-Clearwood
BOSTON, Mass. — MONKEY, A Kung Fu Puppet Parable ticks three of my personal favorite boxes. it features puppets and opera, two traditions that are rife with simple but powerful techniques for bringing fantastical stories to life. It also features martial arts, a personal passion of mine that I rarely see experimented with onstage. It’s a tantalizing combination of performance elements, and I could not have been more excited to discover how White Snake Projects would weave them together.
This newest production by the activist opera company is an 80-minute adaptation of the 16th century 100-chapter saga, Journey to the West. As librettist and White Snake artistic director Cerise Lim Jacobs noted in her curtain speech, the classic Eastern fable is not unlike the Western story of The Wizard of Oz: four hopeful misfits – in this case, a monk, a pig, a sand demon, and the titular mischievous Monkey – embark on a pilgrimage to fulfill their respective desires.
The intrepid party are pushed and pulled along by the personifications of good and evil: this production leans heavily into Wizard of Oz influences with the characters of the “Good Witch” Guan Yi, whose first appearance is literally in the form of a bubble, and the “Evil Witch”, who attempts to throw the travelers off their noble course.
Unfortunately, this narrative adherence to The Wizard of Oz is constraining. In trying to mold the sprawling, episodic source material into the framework of a conventional Western story – with a clear beginning, rising action, climax, and conclusion – this adaptation feels cramped. The title and opening few scenes of this opera frame Monkey as our guiding character, but his fascinating, subversive quest for personal freedom gets lost once the ensemble’s journey picks up steam. And despite frequent pauses for lengthy operatic character numbers, there is little room for this story to breathe.
This is an issue with the staging as well: director Roxanna Myhrum’s visual compositions are eye-catching and dynamic, but there is often too much happening at once, resulting in a world that feels messy and cramped. This is a shame, because there is exquisite craftmanship on display, rarely with an opportunity to fully shine.
The Bunraku-style puppets, designed by Tom Lee and Chicago Puppet Studio, are a particular highlight. Monkey (manipulated by Carlos Jose Torres Lopez and Eliott Purcell) leaps to life with superhero dynamism; Zhu the Pig (Nathaniel Justiniano) is larger-than-life and achingly despondent about his karmic fate; and Sha the Sand Demon (Angela Guo and Amanda Gibson) is utterly ethereal.
It is the interplay between the puppets and their vocalists that truly brings them to life. Bassist John Paul Huckle and mezzo-soprano Maria Dominique Lopez imbue Zhu and Sha with pathos, but countertenor Chuanyuan Liu’s Monkey is especially moving – not only for his nimble vocals, but also for his earnest stage presence, imbuing the titular character with boundless, captivating passion.
Among the vocalists, Liu is rivaled only by soprano Carami Hilaire, as the evil Mara, in terms of energy. Tenor Dylan Anthony and soprano Christina Maria Castro as the Monk and Guan Yin offer sublime vocal performances, but the villain is always the most fun character to play, and Hilaire is clearly having the time of her life onstage. She is gleefully hammy, leaning into Mara’s punk-goth costume aesthetics to deliver some wickedly delightful moments.
As stunning as the puppetry and accompanying vocal performances are, the other two elements I was most looking forward to – music and martial arts – don’t make as much of an impact. Composer Jorge Sosa pulls from a variety of musical traditions, including some pop and film influences, to weave together a score that is sometimes cinematic and fun, but often static. Jacobs’ libretto can be clunky at times, but she doesn’t shy away from the utter goofiness of the source material: Monkey will be singing about pee one moment and lamenting his miserable fate the next, which is an endlessly fun juxtaposition.
Kung fu feels like a footnote rather than a centerpiece of the staging, partly due to the aforementioned abundance of performance elements. Along with puppets, puppeteers, and soloists, the stage is frequently overflowing with a chorus of children (VOICES Boston), projections, stage combat, and even a CGI fight scene. The world’s aesthetics are muddled as well, with an opening scene that takes place in modern day but the rest of the story in what appears to be 16th-century China.
Lim Jacobs also mentioned universality in her curtain speech, and I suspect that the production’s myriad of historical and cultural inspirations is an attempt to make the story feel accessible. But in striving for universality, the production loses out on the specificity of character, plot, and world-building that truly make a story resonate across time and space.