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White Snake Projects’ “transmedia” opera “Monkey: A Kung Fu Puppet Parable” boldly suggests that the only elements the original tale “Journey to the West” lacked were early-2000s CGI, lightsabers, and a healthy portion of individualism. They were surely wrong, but the ambition is impressive. Formal experimentation lies at the heart of this production, combining as many mediums as humanly possible into one flashy and entertaining, yet ultimately muddy and unfocused performance that is strongest in the few moments it allows the audience to breathe.
An original production by librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs and composer Jorge Sosa, “Monkey: A Kung Fu Puppet Parable” is an exceedingly imaginative and concise adaptation of the epic journey 16th-century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” The opera opens with a framing narrative that takes place in a classroom. A student representative of the protagonist, Monkey (Chuanyuan Liu), leads the classroom into chaos as he demands everyone’s undying attention. From here, the 21st century gives way to Ancient China in an Ozian bid to reform the disruptive student, following the Westward journey of Monkey, Zhu (John Paul Huckle), Sha (Maria Dominique Lopez), and Monk (Dylan Morrongiello) as they attempt to retrieve sacred Buddhist teachings in order to cleanse the world — and themselves — of sin. Along the way, Mara (Carami Hilaire) attempts to stall their progress with episodic tests of will specifically designed to take advantage of each adventurer’s deepest desire.
The narrative is by far the weakest aspect of “Monkey,” morphing the vitality and wisdom of the source material into a bite-sized adventure that lacks any emotional or thematic depth. Each character is reduced to a small handful of stereotypes and phrases, with Zhu interrupting countless serious moments with repetitive lamentations of his hunger and Sha hardly speaking outside of a brief vignette. Despite endeavoring upon a heroic journey together, the characters hardly speak to each other, save to derisively point out each other’s aforementioned stereotypes.
Narrative aside, however, “Monkey” is at the very least formally impressive, featuring a host of both innovative and traditional mediums smashed into one production. Sadly, the latter can largely be handwaved away as neither unpleasant nor excellent. Costume design and set pieces rarely call attention to themselves, instead serving almost a purely functional role as other elements are highlighted instead. While there are exceptions to this pattern — one character wears a stunning white dress adorned with scintillating bands of gold and holds an imposing staff that catches every ray of light — most scenes use costumes and set pieces modestly and sparingly. For example, a host of ghosts are represented by actors dressed in plain sheets.
While some visual elements are understated, the music stands out. Nimble sopranos soar above rich, full-bodied baritones who almost shake the theater with their sheer vocal power. Liu glides effortlessly through vocal pentatonics as the orchestra dances just underneath. Even in transitions the music is delightfully sweet, with the pit orchestra momentarily taking priority, highlighting the incredible virtuosity of each performer in turn. David McGrory echoes the operatic motifs on piano, offering a gentler, yet equally splendid experience of Jorge Sosa’s orchestral melodies.
What really makes the opera worth watching, however, is its experiments with form. As the title suggests, the heroes of the production are life-sized puppets commanded by several puppeteers in a contemporary adaptation of ‘bunraku,’ a form of traditional Japanese theater. The puppets are beautifully rendered, with Sha’s disembodied hands and head looming sinisterly over every other character, strands of billowing white ribbon reflecting the movement of sand. Their movements are cartoonish and exaggerated, adding some much needed physical emotion to the powerful vocal performances.
All of the production’s action occurs against an ever-shifting CGI backdrop that works best when at rest. The potential of this medium is highlighted early in the opera when a beautiful ink-wash background is rendered gently by slow and methodical strokes of an invisible brush. The ink bleeds outwards, taking the form of beautiful flowers and reeds framing a gentle riverscape. As an onstage character demands another character’s death by execution, the watery background is inundated with thick, crimson blood imagery, emphasizing the sudden shift in tone and stakes.
Sadly, this moment of excellence does not last long. Overambition, like most of the opera, is the death of this medium. In the climax, the background explodes into a visual cacophony of poorly rendered Monkey models performing unique two-second loops that range from inoffensive at best to actively distracting — one features an otherwise static model spinning on a central axis.
This visual chaos is a symptom of the production’s primary fault: Too many elements compete for the viewer’s attention. In the aforementioned scene, each character is represented by at least three performers: the puppets, the singers, and their CGI models. It is difficult enough to focus on one character and their many permutations, let alone the several that swarm the stage in the opera’s final moments — one of which erratically twirls dual lightsabers in a horribly confusing anachronism.
Despite the production’s many faults, ultimately, “Monkey” is an entertaining and worthwhile experience. The opera is worth seeing for its ambition alone, and it has enough fleeting moments of excellence that highlight the potential of every medium in isolation that the audience is left impressed, if somewhat dissatisfied. Cerise Lim Jacobs’ production is not a warning to future creators, but rather a sign of promise. If handled with more care and precision, puppetry, CGI, and other experiments can absolutely come to flourish on the stage.
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