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Moral pathways: Constellation’s colorful ‘Journey to the West’

Written By | May 1, 2016

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2016 – The Constellation Theatre Company is back at the Source doing the kind of thing it does best: mounting a colorful, highly inventive performance of a play based on ancient mythologies. The company’s current new production of Mary Zimmerman’s “Journey to the West” fits that description perfectly, save that this drama is based on a fanciful literary treatment of far Eastern religious philosophies and teachings.

Derived from the classic 16th century Chinese novel of the same name, attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to Wu Cheng’en, this “Journey to the West” is subtitled “Tale of the Monkey King,” and rightly so. Although the ultimate focus of the story is the spiritual quest of a devout but not always clear-eyed Buddhist monk named Tripitaka (Ashley Ivey), roughly the initial third of this drama relates the story of the rambunctious and incurably curious Monkey King (Dallas Tolentino).

The Monkey King begins the play by setting out on his own journey in search of self, knowledge and power, making considerable progress on all three until he’s imprisoned inside a mountain for overstepping bounds.

What’s interesting here is that 2016 is, in fact, The Year of the Monkey in the Chinese zodiac, placing this drama and one of its key characters in a most auspicious year for these performances. According to at least one description, our Monkey King seriously embodies traditional monkey traits both good and bad, all of which have a significant impact on the outcome of our story:

“People [and monkeys, we’d assume] born in a year of the Monkey are witty, intelligent, and have a magnetic personality. Personality traits, like mischievousness, curiosity, and cleverness, make them very naughty. Monkeys are masters of practical jokes, because they like playing most of the time. Though they don’t have any bad intentions, their pranks sometimes hurt the feelings of others. Monkeys are fast learners and crafty opportunists.”

Sounds like our Monkey King for sure. But let’s leave him in his mountain for a moment.

It’s at this point in the tale that we shift to the tale of Tripitaka who sets out on behalf of his patron to discover spiritual truth by making an epic voyage from China to India to uncover sacred scriptures and truths. The journey turns out to be much, much longer and much, much more complicated than Tripitaka had ever imagined, forcing him to enlist the uneven aid of three animal friends he meets along the way, including an ill-mannered pig (Ryan Tumulty), a nasty river monster (Michael Kevin Darnall) and, yes, the Monkey King whom Tripitaka eventually liberates from his mountain prison.

The monk’s journey still encounters seemingly insurmountable difficulties. But, similar in a way to the much later characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” Tripitaka’s sometimes bumbling companions often show much more intelligence and craft than their human leader, helping him through key dilemmas he can’t seem to negotiate himself.

While “Journey to the West” is based on a peripatetic physical journey, it’s really a colorful, metaphorical journey for us all as we, too, seek out truth if indeed truth is to be found. In the process we, like the characters in the play, encounter many obstacles on the way, not to mention the many fellow beings who, for whatever reason, seem determined to make us stray from the chosen path.

Without giving too much away, we can tell you that our pilgrims do finally achieve their destination along with a reasonable amount of wisdom—although this wisdom in many ways is not too far removed from the wisdom that Dorothy found as she recited her incantation while clicking the heels of her Ruby Slippers together.

Constellation’s production of “Journey to the West” contains all the elements for which this small but dedicated company is renowned: an interesting set, an imaginative narrative, colorful costumes, occasional wild athleticism, dance pageantry and, last but not least, another evocative musical score composed and performed by that Washington musical treasure otherwise known as Tom Teasley.

A.J. Guban’ simple but elegant set consists of two levels circumscribed by a great wooden circle above and clad with dark bamboo walls on either side. Kendra Rai’s colorful period costuming adds considerable authenticity to the pageantry, an effect further enhanced by Colin K. Bills’ lighting.

The players themselves seemed positively influenced by the atmospherics, performing their parts with steadily paced craftiness and awkward elegance.

Of all the players, Dallas Tolentino’s performance as the Monkey King was perhaps the most compelling and certainly the most hyperkinetic. Tolentino’s gymnastic, pugilistic and dancing skills were a wonder to behold, and the pace of the action always picked up considerably whenever he and his frantic, action-seeking character were on stage.

As something of the Monkey King’s polar opposite, Ashley Ivey’s Tripitaka is—by design—too deliberative, prone to over-intellectualize everything and always in danger of thinking beyond the solution thus missing the solution itself. It’s the job of his animal friends to supply the kind of basic common sense he often lacks.

In portraying the monk, Ivey nonetheless stays true to form, evincing a generally benevolent stoicism that ultimately enables him to see his mistakes and learn from them in the end.

Ryan Tumulty’s snorting pig and Michael Kevin Darnall’s former monk and now River Monster character ably add their little nuggets of experience and stick-to-it-iveness whenever required.

Other players also shine in numerous parts, particularly Justine “Icy” Moral as a female Buddha and others.

An additional hat tip goes to the elegant choreography of Pauline Grossman and the meticulous yet understated direction of Allison Arkell Stockman.

Our only criticism of this production: the play seemed somewhat overly long to us by, perhaps, 10-15 minutes. That said, we’re off next week to take in Washington National Opera’s entire Ring Cycle of Richard Wagner operas whose collective running time probably exceeds 15 hours. Perhaps it’s all relative.

In any event, though “Journey to the West” does on occasion drag a bit, we always have Dallas Tolentino’s manic Monkey King erupting at just the right time, causing us in turn to lose track of time once again as we move through Chinese myth, spirit and reality. It’s a spiritually refreshing voyage, and, in our age of moral relativism, it’s very much worth the trip.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Constellation Theatre’s “Journey to the West” continues at Source—1835 14th Street NW, Washington D.C. 20009—through May 22. For tickets and information, call 202-204-7741, or click this link.


Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17