- Monkey: Journey to the West, and: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and: Homeland, and: The Great War
May 2008 marked the 32nd annual Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1977 by Gian Carlo Menotti and partners as a counterpart to the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, the festival each year presents a dizzying array of opera, theatre, dance, orchestral, jazz, and chamber music, and visual arts from world-renowned artists. In theatre, presenting artists of recent years have included Ping Chong, Meredith Monk, Lee Breuer, Laurie Anderson, The Gate Theatre, Mike Daisey, da da camera, and many others.
This year, several of the theatre pieces had overtones of violence, delivered through a pairing of live and mediated performance. Projected images (or the surprising lack thereof) rendered the violence more immediate and disturbing in a couple of shows; and in other productions, the multimedia contributed to a muting of violent emotions—an application of an aesthetic glaze transforming destructive impulses into nonthreatening entertainment. In all the productions discussed in this review, the presence (or absence, in the case of Laurie Anderson) of multimedia highlighted the body of the live performer onstage, and prompted questions about the act of viewing and how we process images of and references to violence in differently mediated contexts.
Certainly the production that earned the most attention at the festival was the American premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West, an adaptation with Western elements of a Chinese literary classic often told in Chinese opera. Spoleto audiences had high expectations from director Chen Shi-Zheng, whose Peony Pavilion caused a sensation in 2004, and Monkey did not disappoint; in fact, several performances had to be added to accommodate demand.
Stylistically, in its music, performance techniques, and acting, Monkey was a pastiche of East and West, blending remarkably well and reflecting the dual hemispheric influences of Chen Shi-Zheng. The loose plot tells the story of Monkey—being born of an egg, establishing his power, being imprisoned by Buddha for 500 years, and then going on a journey to protect Tripitaka and his companions as they return sacred texts to India. The company introduced characters through various forms of acrobatics, most of them popular elements of Chinese opera. The pole fighting, fabric acrobatics, contortionism, balancing acts, and fire twirling are familiar to Western audiences through groups like Cirque du Soleil and the recent westernized adaptations of Chinese martialarts films by Zhang Yimou. What elevated Monkey and distinguished it from those examples were the multiple talents of the actors, who sang and performed their acrobatics simultaneously.
Most surprising to anyone who has seen any form of Chinese opera were the animations used to help tell the story and transition between scenes. These were in the modern comic style of James Hewlett, credited with the “Visual Concept” of the show, and better known as the visual half of the virtual band Gorillaz. The films appeared periodically throughout the show, providing the audience with images of Monkey’s birth, underwater scenes (used in conjunction with flying performers seen through the screen), and other traveling scenes. Monkey interacted with many of the animations; the playfulness of those animations, and the emotional connection created by Monkey’s live interaction with them, made the real-life film segment, which documented the passage of Monkey’s 500-year imprisonment through a montage of China’s history, particularly disturbing, especially when it culminated with a mushroom cloud nestled in Buddha’s hand as seen through the screen.
Equally as whimsical though far less complicated was British company 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which...