Review: ‘Journey to the West’ at Constellation Theatre Company

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Mary Zimmerman has mastered the stage adaptation, particularly of the classic tale, freely blending cultural forms and styles with hypnotic brilliance. Her Metamorphoses and Arabian Nights are shining exemplars of her craft.

Matthew Pauli and Dallas Tolentino. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Matthew Pauli and Dallas Tolentino. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Journey to the West: the Tale of the Monkey King, now running at Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre, is classic Zimmerman. The beauty of spectacle and the exotic intermingling of culture and style are on full display: colorful costumes, flowing and dynamic sets, some topical humor mixed with high oratory, and most especially the unique presence of one particular monkey.

This Zimmerman adaptation does not bubble with excited wonder, however, an aspect that distinguishes her best pieces; nor does the humor and wit fill the stage.

Rather, enlightenment and Buddhahood predominate, thematically appropriate to be sure, but perhaps a bit too sedate even for the spiritually yearning theatre-goer.

Based on the 16th century Chinese novel of the same name (or rather Xiyouji), written by Wu Cheng’en, the tale primarily chronicles the journey of two characters, the Monkey King and the 7th century, Tang Dynasty monk, Tripitaka.

The Monkey King (Dallas Tolentino), an early follower of Taoism, desires eternal life; so he traipses to heaven to attain it. Trickster-like in every way, he abandons Taoism in favor of Buddhism. Nevertheless, he proves a little too brazen for the Buddha herself (Justine “Icy” Moral) and soon finds himself buried beneath a gigantic mountain as punishment.

The Buddha also finds the world of the East during the Tang Dynasty too full of greed, lust, and sin to ever achieve genuine enlightenment. So she sends the Goddess of Compassion, Guanyin (Lilian Oben), to the East to find the monk Tripitaka (Ashley Ivey). He sets off with his three disciples (one the Monkey King) on a 16-year journey to retrieve, from “the West” (or India), the final scriptures of the Buddha.

Justine “Icy” Moral, Ashley Ivey, and Natalie Cutcher. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Justine “Icy” Moral, Ashley Ivey, and Natalie Cutcher. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Although Tripitaka’s journey has historical roots, the tale told in the novel and by Zimmerman, is anything but. It’s more mythological than factual, with the physical journey transforming by tale’s end into a spiritual endeavor.

In the end, this tale reveals the pathway to Buddha.

As with many of Zimmerman’s plays ensemble-work dominates the performance. There were several notable performances, as well.

The most impressive was Dallas Tolentino’s portrayal of the Monkey King. He gives the character and our trickster-soul a ride to remember. Possessing both delightful energy and an acrobat’s skills, Tolentino pops with “monkey” with every move and the occasional fart. His expressiveness is not limited to his body, however; his face also opens to wonder and excitement and dismay and disappointment–everything that any self-respecting monkey who searches for truth might have.  Although he serves the monk, he serves us all a healthy dose of joy.

Constellation company member Ashley Ivey plays the bookish Tripitaka, who has learned the scripture by heart, but whose heart has not yet learned its lessons. Ivey captures the “monk” look to the letter; in fact, being an old fart myself I couldn’t help but think: “Grasshopper” as he journeyed across an imaginary landscape.

Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, is portrayed by Lilian Oben. She gives the goddess a notably affectionate demeanor; except, of course, in one scene when Tolentino’s Monkey intrudes upon “free time” and catches her without her “formal attire” (exactly what she was doing was never fully explained.).

Pig–not a real pig, but another celestial being who has been punished by Ms. Buddha–is embodied by Ryan Tumulty, and a truly infamously fat belly designed by Costume Designer Kendra Rai. (By the way, her costumes are, for the most part, wonderful and a show all by themselves.)

Finally, Justine “Icy” Moral consistently spiced up the stage. Her Buddha-eyes were spellbinding, electric to the gaze; her orchid cheeks tantalizing as she coyly entraps.

The whole ensemble does a strong job; they include Natalie Cutcher as Green Orchid, Michael Kevin Carnall as Sha Monk, Megan Dominy as Subodhi, Marguis D. Gibson as the Dragon King, David Mavricos as Yama, Matthew Pauli as Mr. Gao, Rafael Sebastian as Moksa, and Jacob Yeh as the Jade and the Tang Emperors.

At the center, or off-center, of all this marvel is Percussionist Tom Teasley. He returns to Constellation once again (think Crazyface and The Ramayana, to name but a few) to compose and perform the score for Journey to the West and, as always, his percussion work is a show in itself. Continuous and full of life, it drives the show.

Dallas Tolentino and Justine “Icy” Moral. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Dallas Tolentino and Justine “Icy” Moral. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Sitting up-left, inside Scenic Designer A. J. Guban’s mystical oblong, wooden sphere, Teasley’s presence is akin to the Self itself struggling for rebirth inside a mystical oval or egg. The whole affair is mystically lit by Collin K. Bills.

Property Designers Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa (both Gadgetgrlz) did a fabulous job devising the various objects for Journey, while Pauline Grossman did the show’s choreography.

The production was directed by Constellation Artistic Director Allison Arkell Stockman. For the most part she adroitly handled the difficult fusion of styles, and for many scenes she found the “spectacular”. Several scenes and motifs were not as “spectacular”, however, and they needed to be.

One could argue, of course, that in a spectacle about Buddhism, the “spectacle” is not so important after all; and, of course, one would be right.

Journeys are inward: the fabulous is, as Aristotle postulated, in the mind’s eye of the spectator.

Let us all then, sit cross-legged and forever: the world will come to us as we leave the world.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

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Journey to the West plays through May 22, 2016 at Constellation Theatre Company, performing at Source – 1835 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.