Just got back from a dress rehearsal of Monkey: Journey to the West.

I saw about half of the story, I think, up to the point at which Monkey is captured by the Great Buddha for 500 years. The rest is still a mystery, happily, to me. Here’s what I can say about the show: It’s visually stunning. It’s like taking a graphic novel and rendering it for the stage.

There’s little need for much wordiness. The exposition is clear from the structure of the myth: A powerful monkey is saddened by the fact that he will die someday. All of his romping and joy will end one day. What’s the point of carrying on? So he seeks immortality.

He travels the world to find it, including to a handful of sage and magical creatures to grant him magical devices to aid his journey. The mise-en-scène of each of these visits to sage and magical creatures is so lush. It’s pure theatrical spectacle. But there were hints at Monkey’s deeper psychology.

Though monkey is a Chinese character (the novel was written in the 1500s), he’s familiar to Western audiences in that we’ve seen him as the fool. He’s playful and powerful and kind of daft. He’s not really interested in studying, in hard work, in anything other than what he wants. Even so, he’s clever and cunning and he makes us laugh. We like that about him. We’ll like him in the U.S. He fits right in.

As I note in today’s feature about Monkey:

For the Bard, [the fool] 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.

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.

… [A]ll 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.”