Central Square's "Journey": Gong with the Wind

Cast Members in "Journey to the West"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair)

That gong you hear (as well as countless other percussive sounds) throughout Journey to the West is the outstanding highlight of this latest offering at Central Square Theater, a collaboration of Underground Railway Theater and Nora Theatre Company (quite a challenge to acknowledge, especially with their differing spellings for “Theater” vs. “Theater”). Also known as The Legend of the Monkey King, in a translation by Anthony C. Yu, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, this sixteenth century Chinese comic novel follows a seventh century monk as he travels to India from his native China, while searching for personal spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist scriptures in what has been refered to as a celebration of the vitality of human perseverance. Based on the real-life monk Xuan Zang, called Tripitaka (Jesse Garlick) in this version, and his first disciple, Sun Wu Kong, here referred to as the Monkey King (Lynn R. Guerra), this show focuses on their many adventures on their pilgrimage to the West. The original novel's author, Wu Cheng En, actually wrote it in order to criticize the Ming Dynasty's political system and society. It featured gods, demons, immortals, and much action and magic.

The characters in this production include the Jade Emperor (Thomas Derrah), the Sha Monk (Harsh J. Gagoomal), Pig (Shanae Burch), Guanyin (Jordan Clark), Moksa (Arianna Reith), the Dragon King (Will Madden), Princess Sravasti (Lisa Joyce), a King (Trevor Liu), Peach Girl (Lisa Nguyen) and Buddha (Sophori Ngin). Most of this talented ensemble play several other parts as well. As great as all these performers are (with Guerra a simian standout and Gagoomal a scene-stealing wonder in perpetual motion), it's that pervasive percussion that wins the day for this production, thanks to the precise perfection of Ryan Meyer, whose vital contribution creates non-stop musical immersion. As painstakingly Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, with fabulous Choreography by Judith Chaffee, colorful Scenic Design by David Fichter, wondrous Costume Design by Leslie Held and apt Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski, it's a worthy successor to the five-year reign of the previous holiday staple, Arabian Nights, though it seems a bit too long and cerebral for potential young audience members.

The show takes to heart one of its aphorisms: “If you hurry, you will never arrive”. A bit of trimming here and there would help, while not affecting the already episodic nature of the journey of some hundred and eight thousand miles, sixteen years, eighty-one ordeals, and almost three hours in performance. It's an embarrassment of riches, filled with scenes that serve as reminders of other great heroic journeymen (and women) from Odysseus to Beowulf to Siddhartha. In the end, our intrepid twosome's response to their final ordeal is laughter. You could do worse than spending an afternoon or evening with the monkey and the monk, especially if superior acting and movement are your cup of oolang.

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