What is it? This musical extravaganza is based on a 16th-century Chinese saga about a mischievous monkey born of a stone egg who angers the all-powerful Buddha (in the form of a 26-foot-tall statue) with his naughty ways. To redeem himself, he must embark on a quest to India to find the sacred texts and bring them back to their rightful place in China. Combining visual arts, music, and acrobatic choreography — high-tech video projections, circus-like movements, music that’s not quite pop, not quite classical — Monkey: Journey to the West is a retelling of an ancient myth for the 21st century. This is the longest-running show of the festival. As far as the buzz factor goes, this one red-lines at eleven. Our guess is that it will be the one to remember, even more than Amistad and La Cenerentola.

Why see it? It’s directed by the guy who made Spoleto’s “circus opera,” Peony Pavilion, and the recent movie Dark Matter — Chen Shi-Zeng. The music was composed by the frontman of British rock band Blur and the guy who gave languid singing to the animated hip-hop melange outfit Gorillaz — Damon Albarn. And it features animation, design, and costumes by the animator of simian chart-toppers in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom — Jamie Hewlett. Need we say more?

Who should go? The young, fashionable, and literate. The old, venerable, and the aesthetically curious. The multimedia hounds. The discriminate pluralists. The intellectual omnivores. These will find Monkey undeniable. It combines the old and new, East and West, traditional and contemporary. If you want to see fine art and pop art merge in a perfect blending in which you are never conscious of that merger, then you must see this highly-anticipated event.

SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $25-$65 • 2 hours • May 22, 26, 28, 29, 30, June 3, 5, 6, 7 at 8 p.m.; May 23, 24 at 7 p.m.; May 25, June 1 at 6 p.m.; May 26, 31, June 7, 8 at 2 p.m. • Sottile Theatre, 44 George St. • (843) 579-3100

Motley Monkey: The story of a global comic hero finds its natural audience in America


What can a new multimedia “circus opera” about a mischievous Chinese monkey on a spiritual quest to redeem himself say about life in the new globalized world of the 21st century?

What can this multicultural version of a medieval court jester mean to us beyond making us laugh with his ability to drive the gods of heaven bananas?

Perhaps we can start with the first people to envision globalization, European pioneers of cartography who, with the same spirit of enterprise as today’s innovators and entrepreneurs, created an entirely new worldview for the sake of a growing international sea trade.

It wasn’t all about business, though. These were pious Christians, after all. To fully understand the world, these mapmakers expressed the forces that controlled and shaped the world — both human and divine. One such person, who evidently believed all the world’s a stage, was Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. In 1570, he published the first modern world atlas titled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

In other words, The Theater of the World.

“Theater” here is metaphysical. This world is a kind of stage on which we are characters playing bit parts in the cosmic battle between good and evil. This material existence is merely a testing ground before an eternity in the afterlife and a fulfillment of God’s plan.

“There is a sense, especially in the larger maps of baroque theatre, in which gods and monarchs survey or manipulate human drama,” wrote Peter Whitfield in The Image of the World, a book about maps as a lens to reading cultural history.

The rise of the West’s capitalist economy must have made people feel guilty. To acquire worldly things, like money and property, is a tacit repudiation of God’s wishes. You can’t have too much — at least you can’t look like you have too much. Mapmakers took pains to construct a pious public image, as if to avoid the appearance of contravening King Solomon’s axiom that all toil is vanity.

This is illustrated by an unknown imitator of Ortelius. In 1590, he designed an atlas commonly called the Fool’s Cap Map. It looks like a court jester, or fool, dressed in a hooded motley — bold colors, large “ears” like an ass, a set of jingle bells — but where his face is supposed to be there’s a map of the world.

The Fool was the inverse of the King. Often physically deformed or mentally deranged, he was an entertainer who was without power and ultimately without accountability. He was a “natural,” as Shakespeare called him, touched by the hand of God with a childlike madness that was both a blessing and a curse.

The Fool is society’s scapegoat “who drew upon himself the forces of evil, unreason, or ill-fortune,” Whitfield says. He could defy power, even the King’s, but only because he already suffered “a kind of living punishment.” With the Fool’s Cap Map, the whole world becomes a fool, forcing us to consider the possibility that God’s universe is “irrational, alien, and threatening.”

Shakespeare’s view of the fool wasn’t as bleak. For the Bard, he was the everyman, the clever peasant, the scrappy wit. He didn’t have much, but he had guts and smarts. In the static social order of medieval and Renaissance Europe, the fool had no station. All he possessed he gained for himself, independently with grit, a puckish sense of humor, and “natural,” or God-given, gifts.

Shakespeare’s “natural” seems almost American, at least spiritually, which makes sense.

We like the risk-takers and mischief-makers, the hustlers and provocateurs. We have soft spots for thick-skinned kidders, visionaries, and con men: the dreamers and schemers, the fakers and fabulists. American history is filled with figures who played shape-shifters, tricksters, impersonators, and anti-heroes. We love them for their foreignness, eccentricities, and power to morally instruct, entertain, and make us laugh.

Tom Sawyer, Freddie the Freeloader, and Mohammad Ali; P.T. Barnum, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Ignatius T. Riley — the list goes on. Yorick and Puck find their modern expressions in Stepin Fetchit, Frank-N-Furter, Andy Kaufmann, and Borat, each exploiting his otherness to tell some kind of truth about us. All emerged from an Anglo-American culture that arose from an egalitarian gumbo of social differences and religious contradictions.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass.

Much like Shakespeare’s London, America can be seen as a republic of motley fools. Perhaps the Fool’s Cap Map then isn’t a symbol of chaos and disorder after all. Perhaps the Fool’s Cap Map is a symbol of America’s continued role and purpose in a new globalized world, a revised version of Whitman’s liberal transcendental self — a multi-national, multicultural, multi-spiritual comic hero perfectly suited to the 21st century.

Put the emphasis on “comic.” The fool guarantees we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

“Make me laugh and you’re in,” writes Beatrice K. Otto in Fools Are Everywhere, summing up the historical criteria for the fool, despite his usual traits as “irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever, [and] roguish.” Using humor, the fool is the shape-shifter, able to be a “companion,” “goad to the wise,” and “challenger of the virtuous,” Otto writes.

According to the religious symbolism of Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, all human toil is vanity, because we play bit parts in the theater of God’s devising. The fool’s role, though, is more significant. Amid the spiritual battles between good and evil, the fool plays the “critic of the world.”

The court jester is a universal phenomenon, yet it’s China where we find the longest history of court jesters. The Fool eventually fell out of favor after the formal rise of Chinese theater, but his impish spirit lived on in a classic tale about a magical and mischievous monkey called Journey to the West. Written during the Ming Dynasty by Wu Ch’eng-en (about 1500-1582), Journey to the West, also called Monkey, follows the odyssey of a Buddhist monk traveling to India seeking lost holy scriptures. Among his companions is a monkey, who must redeem himself for past evil.

What evil? Foolish and motley evil. Born of a stone egg, the monkey runs around laughing, jumping, and generally wreaking havoc. He’s obsessed with immortality and magic. He eventually learns how to take the form of anything he wants — he is a shape-shifter. He goes to heaven to demand equality from the gods. He fights and beats them before proclaiming himself heaven’s equal. The Great Buddha is finally called in to put a stop to it all.

Monkey is the most famous comic hero among China’s billion-plus people, including Chen Shi-Zheng, who as a young boy discovered the 16th-century novel: “I was immediately drawn into the story about a little monkey with no fear even against a mighty power,” Chen says.

“He was equal to heaven.”

Chen grew up to become an admired and provocative director of opera and film. His Peony Pavilion, a 19-hour Chinese opera staged at the Lincoln Center Festival and later at Spoleto Festival USA, is probably his best-known work. His new movie is Dark Matter, about a crazed Chinese college student mired between cultures who embarks on a shooting rampage, also killing himself.

Meanwhile, Chen, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1987, always remembered Monkey: “I have been inspired since I was a boy,” he says. “I brought a copy to America. Here, you have Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, but no one had heard of Monkey. I wanted to share that.”

The result is a story of a comic hero quickly taking his place among the world’s great epics. Called Monkey: Journey to the West, the ancient spiritual quest is a visual feast featuring dancers, acrobats, puppets, and opera singers. It gets its American debut at Spoleto Festival.

The circus opera is the result of years of collaboration with former Blur and current Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, creator and illustrator of Gorillaz, to manifest the psychological aspects of Monkey. “We didn’t know what to call it,” Chen says. “We had to search for a new vocabulary and a new art form. People love it. It’s quite extraordinary to see so many people drawn to a story about enlightenment.”

Monkey seems a new model of the Renaissance fool, taking the place of the court jester in Fool’s Cap Map. It revises the spiritual meaning of Ortelius’ Theater of the World for the 21st century. Like Whitman, it is plural and expansive. It is large. It contains multitudes — characters, moods, jokes, media, genre, and audience. It was only natural that Monkey would come to America. Monkey‘s buzz is huge. It runs for Spoleto’s entirety.

Perhaps Monkey will spark a revival of American interest in Chinese culture similar to our 30-year-old love affair with Japanese culture.

Which would makes sense given this auspicious moment in world history as China ascends to the top of the global economy. Just as many Americans once feared our close economic ties with Japan would lead to its global domination — we love Pokémon and pocky — people are now fearing the same will come from our growing ties with China. In fact, nearly a dozen books have recently been published about the decline of the West, most of them variations on a theme revolvoing around the demise of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman empires.

Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World, takes a different view. As editor of Newsweek International, he believes the U.S. will remain a global leader well into the current century, because of its military might and its cultural capital, which springs forth internally — we graduate more scientists and engineers per capita — but also externally. Meaning immigrants.

Immigrants, like Monkey director Chen, are what make us different from every other country. In a new globalized age, in which creativity has eclipsed industry, America’s vast and deep reserves of youth and smarts will make the difference, Zakaria says. Like Jewish artists of the last century, Chinese artists of this one will find opportunities here for the same reason. China continues its political repression, censoring the internet, cancelling performances by its orchestra in unsavory locales, and making a stink anywhere in the world about events that make China look bad.

Protected by law and empowered by individual rights, Chinese artists of the 21st century, like Chen, will find it safe in America to create a story about a spiritually transcendental monkey, playing his role on a cosmic stage, who at turns is a goad to the wise, a challenger of the virtuous, and critic of the world.

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