April turns out to be an “epic” month in the city. This week Washington National Opera opens its much-anticipated full “Ring Cycle” by Richard Wagner, and Constellation Theatre, the company that sails into the theater awards ceremony with more Helen Hayes nominations than any other company this year, has just debuted its production of Mary Zimmerman’s Journey to the West.
Having just returned from China where I was working with both classical western and Chinese literature, including the source material for this piece, I was thrilled to encounter the work again in the Washington theatre.
Journey to the West is taken from one of the four great Chinese classical novels and dates from the sixteenth century. It tells the rambling story of an unlikely foursome – an insatiable pig, a ferocious river monster, and a very energetic if naughty monkey, who become both disciples and protectors of Tripitaka, a monk, on his quest to Central Asia and India to obtain certain sacred texts.
The show has many dazzling design and production elements, the kind of thing sine qua non that make the genre stand apart and appeal. Starting with a gorgeous set by A.J. Guban that combines a giant overhead heavenly “ring,” bamboo panels that serve as side “flats” assisting the dozens of entrances and exits, and, upstage panels of metallic “waves.” At the top of the show, the world glows sumptuously all red and gold under the masterful lighting of Colin K. Bills. The costumes by Kendra Rai are not only colorful but they masterfully allow the multiple quick changes for the ensemble to re-suit up and represent the seemingly hundreds of monkeys, mortals, monsters, and gods that the story requires.
Composer and musician Tom Teasely, who has become synonymous with Constellation’s epic productions, is on stage throughout, creating yet another magical synthesis of “world sounds,” this one filled with elements of Chinese music including bamboo flute, the bawu, the kouxian, and enough gongs and cymbals to help a certain monkey crash the gates of heaven. Teasley has just won the 2016 Drum! Magazine Percussionist of the Year, and to hear his inventive score live alone is worth the price of admission.
As source material, Journey to the West gave playwright Mary Zimmerman another gigantic palette to work her signature style of shared narrative, sweeping story-telling, and ensemble playing of multiple roles in vignette-style performance. The other two best known of her works are Metamorphoses (which Arena Stage produced in 2013) and The Arabian Nights (Constellation Theatre Company will bring back its production of The Arabian Nights next year for its 10th anniversary season.)
Combining folk elements, mythology, and the three religious strands of Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist philosophy, Zimmerman once again did not shy away from packing a walloping load into her creation, and director Allison Arkell Stockman clearly also revels in the “more is more” model of theatre.
She and choreographer Pauline Grossman have done some marvelous integration of such “classical” Far Eastern theatrical devices as waving silk for flowing rivers and waves, martial arts battles with and without staffs, Tai Chi flowing sequences, and Chinese acrobatics. Even more satisfying, Stockman has found ways of making these familiar techniques appear as fresh.
Stockman has been much aided by the three “constants” in the show: the valiant performances of Ashley Ivey (Tripitaka), Lilian Oben (Guanyin) and Dallas Tolentino (Monkey.) Ivey is the central character, an Everyman who brings us back to the essential dramatic quest. Even more importantly, he has to carry the only real breakthrough emotional moments, and Ivey is able to stop the action from the circus of stock characters and line-up of battles to find the soul connection to give us heartache and tears. With his pale White face and with his singularly western delivery, he nevertheless made me believe he was a Chinese monk from the middle ages and he held the spiritual center of the tale.
Oben plays Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of Compassion, a most beloved figure, who even now in Communist China features largely in art and conversation. Oben’s is not an easy assignment, but the actress embodies both grace and a kind of larger than life presence. She even produces a subtle wit or sternness as needed. One of my favorite moments of the evening is when she has fished the monk Tripitaka out of the river (where he has been captured and very nearly served up for the River Monster’s dinner,)and Guanyin comes down to sit beside the little fellow and with such love and total compassionate presence rubs the monk’s hands back to warmth.
Tolentino gets the flashiest role of the acrobatic, antic-filled Monkey, and this performer proves he has the agility to do it. The guy doesn’t ever just walk the whole evening; rather he crawls, leaps, cartwheels (sometimes one handed,) back flips, barrel rolls, fights, and otherwise flings himself around the stage. The guy is a one-man Chinese opera acrobat team. Like all Monkey roles from Eastern dramas, (I think of my own favorite Hanuman from the great Hindu epic theatre) Monkey is the popular favorite and constantly delights.
However, in most authentic indigenous epic drama, some of which can go from sundown to sunup, there is an understanding between performers and audience that there are down times – even what we might call “filler” moments for nature’s calls, etc. Why even in Wagner’s Ring there are long recitative passages restating the musical motives and back story where one might close one’s eyes or go out for the equivalent of a seventh inning stretch. Not so in this.
So the show, coming in at something creeping towards three hours, sometimes felt like the equivalent of a theatrical buffet, and maybe because so much was delivered at such a steady clip it felt occasionally relentless. Broad physical comedy was mixed with picaresque adventure story, mixed with a pilgrims progress allegory of suffering and redemption, and further mixed with a lesson depicting the Chinese virtue of cooperation.
Don’t get me wrong. In addition to the three actors I have already mentioned, some of the best moments in the evening were in the realization of well-drawn comedic vignettes. Ryan Tumulty somehow made his grotesque exposed fat suit and interjecting grunts and snorts into a loveable Pig. His eating slops from a bowl, all to Teasley’s inventive sound effects, creates a star turn.
Journey to the West
closes May 22, 2016
Details and tickets
Justine “Icy” Moral is equally strong in two of her main roles, pairing the unlikely “calm” authority of Buddha with a terrifically choreographed seduction as an evil “rat” princess. I also liked her singing very much and only wish Stockman might have found more integration of vocal music in the piece. (Another plug for even more Teasley collaboration.)
Matthew Pauli was totally creepy as Mr. Gao. Michael Kevin Darnall proved even creepier as a monk gone-bad-and-turned-Monster (though truthfully I didn’t get his vocal choice on that one.) Another highlight for me was Natalie Cutcher, who led a quartet of ancient elders that was filled with delicious mask work and detailed mimetic depiction of sneaky, lascivious “agedness” in all four. Indeed, the whole ensemble showed some remarkable movement chops and great stamina for a production that demanded everything: mask work, slow motion control, Tai Chi grace, and quick footed combat routines.
This seasoned company continues to take on the challenge of epic theatre. It is gratifying to see young people (and Washington audiences in general) embracing this style, a rarity in this TV-obsessed country. If some of the performers lack some maturity – let’s call it “seasoning” — to pull off the heightened demands of character and voice such works also require to make a production brilliant throughout, well then, the commitment of Constellation must be commended for their developing such performance capacity –- and supported!
Journey to the West by Mary Zimmerman . Direction by Allison Arkell Stockman . Composer & Musician: Tom Teasley. Choreography by Pauline Grossman . Featuring Natalie Briggs Cutcher, Michael Kevin Darnall, Marquis D. Gibson, Ashley Ivey, Megan Dominy, David Mavricos, Justine “Icy” Moral, Lillian Oben, Matthew Pauli, Rafael Sebastian, Dallas Tolentino, Ryan Tumulty, and Jacob Yeh . Set Design: A.J. Guban . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Costume Design: Kendra Rai . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.