The visuals, beyond what is provided by the constant movement and attention-grabbing activity of the performers, also provides a nice mix of east and west. Monkey is face-painted, very much like the Monkey King character in Beijing opera, while most others are merely heavily made up or wearing large head-covering masks. I found the full head masks of the other monkeys at the beginning and the men in heaven to be a little jarring and disturbing. At the distance I was sitting (just over half way back in the orchestra) they looked like Halloween masks or storm trooper helmets, and didn’t blend with the clever costumes of most characters (in whom I saw subtle echos of Julie Taylor and Cirque again).
I hope to see it again from a closer seat so I can fully appreciate the costumes. Often obscured in the copious smoke and dim lighting, they appeared to be both whimsical and a bit grubby. Besides the full head-masks, other costumes that didn’t work for me were the horse costume (the tiny rear end hanging behind the performer just looked creepy) and the flesh eaters, whose fantastic body suits painted “naked” were undermined by the weird blonde wigs. Are we supposed to take this as a cultural statement?
The audience was a typical Spoleto audience. They applauded very little during the performance (I think the performers have been used to more audible appreciation for their work) but happily provided a standing ovation at the end. Some audience members seemed a bit bored by the two-hour, no intermission show, not least of which was the gum-snapping, helmet-haired woman beside me. She should thank her lucky stars for that empty seat between us. I was enthralled throughout, but not emotionally moved.
That’s similar to my experience at the Beijing Opera in Beijing, and I think is not inappropriate or against the creators’ wishes. Monkey is a fantastic spectacle, a celebration of amazing talent, and an illustration of how well the most innovative and exciting performance traditions of east and west can come together to tell a beloved Chinese fable. Go. See it. Be amazed. Don’t get too entranced with one performer; remember to continually scan the stage for the multiple images presented. And bring a sense of wonder.