Saturday, May 24, 2008

Spoleto Festival 2008: Monkey: Journey To The West

Tonight we attended our first Spoleto* event of the year, Monkey: Journey To The West. This is a modern adaptation of a 16th century Chinese tale of a monkey who wants to be immortal and greater than the gods. When I got my copy of the Spoleto program in the mail back in February I read through it the same night. A few things struck me as "must see", and Monkey was one of them for one simple reason: Damon Albarn did the composition. Most people would be familiar with Damon from his work with Blur in the 90's or Gorillaz more recently. As I read more about the piece and learned that all the graphics design and animation was done by Jamie Hewlett, who co-created Gorillaz and did their graphics, and Chen Shi-zheng was involved (he created a 19 hour Chinese opera that has only ever been performed at Spoleto), I knew I had to see it.

The performance started shortly after 7 and finished a little after 9, with no intermission. Between those points, time absolutely stood still. The music was a blend of Albarn's unique style and traditional Chinese influences and instrumentation. The vocals were all in Mandarin Chinese (with supertitles) and there were at least a dozen Chinese opera singers. The soprano in the part of Guan Yin was exquisite, and the mesosoprano in the starfish costume was also a standout.

In addition to the operatic vocals the live action was mixed with animation. The first few acts were separated by fully animated cut scenes. As the piece progressed the animation was gradually incorporated into the performance, until at one point the live actor portraying Monkey was interacting with the animation.

Speaking of live action, the performance was filled with gymnasts, acrobats, contortionists, martial artists, and traditional Chinese circus performers. At times there were so many people on stage doing various things it was hard to keep up. Oh, and did I mention that many of the vocalists were performing while suspended 20 feet over the stage? The aerial work was stunning, whether it was on wire or the scene with the contortionist/acrobat who was hanging from long silk panels.

So far the only US dates for the show are during Spoleto. If you can get to Charleston before it ends on Sunday, June 8th, you won't be disappointed.

About Spoleto Festival USA

For 17 days and nights each spring, Spoleto Festival USA fills Charleston, South Carolina’s historic theaters, churches and outdoor spaces with over 120 performances by renowned artists as well as emerging performers in disciplines ranging from opera, theater, music theater, dance, and chamber, symphonic, choral, and jazz music, as well as the visual arts.

This marks the 31st year of Spoleto Festival USA. I've been in Charleston for 11 years, and in that time have seen Taiwanese dancers, Balinese puppets, several operas (including two world premiers and a US premier), Abby Lincoln's final public performance, David Sedaris, African drummers, counter-tenors singing Sephardic hymns that haven't been performed outside Spain in over 100 years, and a whole lot of other stuff. The depth, breadth and quality of performances is astounding.

And if there isn't enough at Spoleto to interest you, there is also Piccolo Spoleto. Where Spoleto focuses on high art, avant garde performances, and big names, Picocolo Spoleto is all about approchable art, with many performances and exhibits targeted at children. And while tickets for Spoleto events go as high $180, Piccolo has many free events and ticket prices are much more moderate.

1 comment:

  1. My wife's nephew went to Charleston from Orlando just to see this show. He thought it was great and that your review really nailed it.

    And thanks to your review, I knew what he was talking about when he called.

    Thanks for making me look informed (for once).