The Journey of the Monkey King
(西遊記), an instrumental presentation of elements taken from the classic Chinese vernacular novel Journey to the West (西遊記) by the Chai Found Music Workshop (采風樂坊) premiered Saturday night to an excited house at the National Theater.
The first half of the program more than fulfilled those expectations, but the second half proved profoundly disappointing as the performance lost its direction and the presentation got bogged down in unnecessary multimedia effects.
But first things first: Sections of the production, including almost all the first half, and brief moments of the second, were utterly riveting for their innovative use of Chinese traditional instruments to create a contemporary musical score that was still clearly rooted in an East Asian tradition. The use of musicians as dramatic performers was also largely successful, providing a visual highlighting of the narrative elements within the music. This was particularly true of dancer and acrobat Chen Hsin-ho (陳星合), whose guest performance with the ensemble was unforgettable.
In the first movement, in which the monkey king begins to gradually develop his magical powers, Chen used his juggling skills to make a glass ball float in his hands, which under carefully placed lights, had a magical effect and was the perfect metaphor for the mysterious process of developing an inner magical power. This was integrated particularly well with a layered and insistent minimalist background created by pipa (琵琶) and guzheng (古箏).
Huang Cheng-ming’s (黃正銘) score shifted gears effortlessly from fairly conventional Chinese orchestral music to unusual and evocative sounds that picked up ideas for Central Asia and gypsy music, as well as Western contemporary music.
In the first half of the program, which takes the monkey king from the discovery of his magical powers to the chaos that he creates as a result, there is a relatively cohesive narrative structure, grounding the abstractions rendered by the music and limned out through the movements of the performers. Though professional musicians rather than dancers, these movements had been well honed, though a sequence in which bamboo poles were used as props as well as musical instruments might have been better served with professional opera performers whose movements would have had greater self-assurance.
With the second half, Huang abandons the narrative and embarks on an exploration of purely abstract elements of the monkey king’s personality. Movements such as the sixth, titled Joking, and the eighth, titled Human Feeling, left me uncertain where the story had got to. It had in fact more or less disappeared into thin air.
Musically, the second half was less interesting than the first, and the multimedia projections which had been a distraction in the first half, became seriously annoying in the second. The stage set, costumes and make up were simple but effective, yet it seemed that the director was unsure that these would be enough. He incorporated photographs, video of the performers in rehearsal and cartoon images that muddied the overall visual effect. The lack of cohesion of the multimedia element, and its conspicuous lack of real creativity, detracted from the generally high level of professionalism on display.
There was plenty that was good in The Journey of the Monkey King, and much of what was bad could have easily not been. The weak second half was a huge disappointment, for what started out looking like one of the most innovative musical productions by a local troupe this year petered out, becoming lost and aimless, uncertain where it was going and unsure whether it had arrived.