Monkey: Journey to the West. David H. Koch Theater (see Off Broadway). Concept, libretto and direction by Chen Shi-Zheng. Music by Damon Albarn. Visuals and animation by Jamie Hewlett. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs. No intermission.
Monkey: Journey to the West: in brief
Lincoln Center Festival. A rock opera based on Chinese spiritual mythos, designed by Tank Girl cartoonist Jamie Hewlett and composed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn? Well, yeah, and don't scoff: This innovative collaboration, which united Gorillaz copilots Hewlett and Albarn with Chinese writer and director Chen Shi-zheng, won plenty of praise when it opened in Manchester, U.K., and Paris in 2007. Why'd it take six years to reach us? Who cares; it's here.
Monkey: Journey to the West: theater review by David Cote
Multiplex hordes, keep your zombie swarms, robot-versus-dinosaur slugfests and turgid superhero reboots: This summer’s biggest jaw-dropper in terms of OMG optics yoked to dopey storytelling has to be Monkey: Journey to the West. A big-budget multimedia collision (collaboration seems too tidy) between Chinese and British artists over a 16th-century novel, Monkey is a mess—but an energizing one, alternately goofy and garish.
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Inspired by the 1592 multivolume tale of a 7th-century Chinese monk’s sojourn to India to receive Buddhist scriptures, Monkey is a spiritual fable about the path to enlightenment—with an emphasis on how lurid and violent that path can be. Our hero is a simian egomaniac who sneers, giggles and picks fights for the hell of it. After irritating the Buddha one time too many, he is imprisoned for 500 years, after which he is released to help the aforementioned monk on his quest. Along for the ride is a pig-man and an ex-general turned cannibalistic river dweller. (You should devote a good 20 minutes to your program notes before curtain.) Director and librettist Chen Shi-Zheng unloads this mythic hokum in visually impressive but massively underthought tableaux stuffed with acrobatics, martial-arts displays and acting from the Teletubbies school of dramatic art. Between scenes, Jamie Hewlett’s manga-style animations are diverting, but hardly necessary. Ex-Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s polyglot score (bits of electronica, Glass-type minimalism and Chinese opera) is the best element, and frankly, it deserves a better showcase.
If you don’t ask for shaded character, smooth transitions—hell, narrative coherence of any sort—none of this structural crudeness or aesthetic vulgarity will bother you. And if you are in that even more rarefied demo that loves Blur, kung fu fighting, cartoons and Buddhist nostrums, you will go ape.—Theater reivew by David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote
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