The adventures of the Monkey King are well known to every Taiwanese from kindergarten upwards and have been made familiar around the world through television adaptations, movies and books. One of these was an illustrated book by Tsuo Shu-min (卓淑敏) created while she was studying in Brighton in the UK in 1998. She intended the book as an introduction for English audiences to one of Chinese literature's most delightful characters.
Now back in Taiwan, she has joined up with the Puppet and Its Double Theater to create Monkey King Goes Bananas based on her book. While not quite The Lion King or Cats, this show, which incorporates various styles of puppet theater and Beijing opera is sufficiently creative to live up to its stated goal of appealing to both adults and children.
Director Cheng Chia-yin (鄭嘉音), who is critical of the kind of childrens's theater that treats kids like imbeciles, said Monkey makes an effort not to talk down to its audience. It is still recognizably children's theater, but there are many passages of poetic language, and the performers draw heavily on the conventions of Beijing opera and traditional puppet theater.
Monkey tells a simple story, but it also tries to point the way to the greater riches of Chinese culture. The performance adapts the tale of the Monkey King's visit to the palace of heaven to taste the peaches of immortality and the subsequent trouble he causes there.
In this case, he is out to steal heavenly bananas -- something that was not in the original story -- which are said to be better than anything he has tasted on earth.
Apart from human actors, puppets range in size from 20cm-tall marionettes to a 2.5m-tall puppet.
The inhabitants of the earth are represented by marionettes manipulated from above, while the spirits of heaven are rod puppets manipulated from below. There is also the use of humanettes (part actor, part puppet) and masks to fill out the cast and make Monkey a brilliant showcase for the many forms puppetry can take.
Monkey King Goes Bananas opens 7:45pm tonight at the Experimental Theater of Taipei's National Theater with a second evening performance tomorrow. There will be a 2:45pm matinee tomorrow and Sunday. Tickets are NT$400 and are available at the venue or through NTCH ticketing system.