The Constellation Theatre Company has staged many tales of of mythology and fantasy: The Arabian Nights, The Oresteia, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Ramayana, Gilgamesh. It is now adding to this list with its production of Mary Zimmerman’s theatrical version of the classic Chinese Buddhist novel Journey to the West. It is similar to Pilgrim’s Progress in that it is a quest for salvation, an interior struggle for moral improvement and spiritual deepening, exteriorized into an adventure story.
The Tang Emperor (Jacob Yeh) is disturbed by the wickedness of the people he rules and sends the monk Tripitaka (Ashley Ivey) to travel to the west to find Buddhist scriptures that will guide his people to live properly. The monk takes as a disciple the Monkey King (Dallas Tolentino). Tripitaka picks up two more disciples on the way, Pig (Ryan Tumulty) and a river monster (Michael Kevin Darnall). The Monkey King has acquired magical powers through his study with a Daoist sage. (Daoism is an enemy to Buddhism, at least in this tale.) The play is quite explicit that the monkey represents the mind and Pig the body. Both are very unruly and require discipline. The river monster is not similarly allegorized, but he is violent and is an eater of human flesh. Along the way, the monk and his disciples either witness or are subjected to a number of temptations. The Buddha (Justine Moral), as, at the least, a quasi-supernatural being, also appears.
I think it can be is extraordinarily difficult to present convincingly so profound and at times subtle a thing as spiritual and moral self-refinement. I think this production does so unevenly at best. not consistently making one experience the monk’s internal efforts. Despite this, and even for those without much taste for either allegory or Buddhism, the play has certain attractions for, while the story line is serious, there is a good amount of humor. The Monkey King and Pig in particular are amusingly outrageous characters and the monkey’s acrobatic antics, the music (composed and performed live by Tom Teasley), and the stylized fight scenes are some of the ways director Allison Arkell Stockman makes the two and three-quarter hours play engaging and go at a rather good pace.
Journey to the West is being performed at the Source Theatre in Washington, DC through May 22nd.