'Monkey: Journey to the West' review: A strenuous bore lost in translation

A scene from "Monkey: Journey to the West,"

A scene from "Monkey: Journey to the West," performed July 6-28, 2013 at the David H. Koch Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. (Credit: William Struhs)

It has more astounding acrobats than all the daredevils in "Pippin." It has more otherworldly flying than any aerial feat in "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" and as much spectacular imagery as the magic dreamed up at Cirque du Soleil.

Despite all that and more, "Monkey: Journey to the West" is a strenuous bore. The 100-minute cross-cultural spectacle, the massive centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival running through July 28, attempts to bridge ancient Chinese mythology with trippy pop animation. It all looks pretty in many different ways but ends up pretty soporific.

Chen Shi-Zheng, the Chinese-born New York stage and film visionary, has staged four productions for the festival -- most conspicuously, the 20-hour "Peony Pavilion" that in 1999 incited a clash with Shanghai officials because it was considered too experimental for Chinese ancient art.

"Monkey," based on a still-popular novel from the 16th century, was created for the Manchester International Festival in 2007. For this picaresque eight-scene journey, Chen combined a new East-West hybrid score by British pop innovator Damon Albarn and modern cartoon extravaganzas by Jamie Hewlett -- both creators of the virtual band of cartoon musicians, Gorillaz.

We first meet Monkey (played at Sunday's performance by Wang Lu) as he hatches from a stone that has tumbled from majestic screen images of mountainous wonder. What comes out is a mischievous scamp, a brat with a painted monkey face, an orange suit and a tail. As we learn from projected supertitle translations of the Mandarin, the boy sobs when he realizes he, like everyone, will die. In one of the few poignant translations among many obscure ones, this reads, "Monkey who understands emptiness."

But Monkey is an annoying creature who yips a monkey-like "hoo-ha-ha" throughout the show and has what we are meant to see as an adorable simian obsession with rubbing his crotch. After being punished for bad behavior by being held captive for 500 years in Buddha's hand, he is invited to join the monk Tripitaka and his merry band of pig, horse and general on a varied but monotonous 17-year journey west to bring back Buddhist scriptures.

Along the way, they encounter nonstop heavenly contortionists, plate twirlers, Kung-Fu battles and floating adversaries. Meanwhile, the music combines Chinese and Western instruments, exotic microtonal vocal slides, French Impressionism and some rap. It is all very beautiful, but, at least in translation, too evocative of the supertitle, "A mind is pure that holds nothing."

WHAT "Monkey: Journey to the West"

WHERE Koch Theater, Lincoln Center

INFO $25-$250; 212-721-6500; lincolncenterfestival.org

BOTTOM LINE Lost in translation

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