Show Me the Monkey

East meets West in a new production at the nation’s finest children’s theater

A few miles from the University, The Children’s Theatre Company is transforming drama for children.

The company is the premier theater of its kind in the nation. It performs six shows a year to hundreds of thousands of theatergoers, including a subscription base of 25,000 members.

Opening Friday is “The Monkey King,” one of the company’s most ambitious works to date.

The popular Chinese legend is typically performed for several hours a night during the course of a week in the traditional Beijing Opera production.

Merging Eastern and Western cultures is no small challenge for the company’s acclaimed artistic director, Peter Brosius.

To aid in this experiment, Brosius has assembled an impressive international team. Shen Pei, a renowned dance artist and choreographer, was brought in as co-director. Xin Li, who has followed his father and grandfather in building a career out of playing the Monkey King, comes from the Beijing Opera itself. And Jeffrey Hatcher, an experienced television writer and playwright, was recruited for his talents in adapting the Chinese legend for a U.S. audience.

Unlike anything you’ve seen before

“I don’t think there’s ever been a mix of this kind of dance, kicks, twirls, staffs and martial arts,” Brosius said.

“I’ve never seen martial arts like this on a stage in the United States.”

Brosius’ energy for theater is infectious, and it is obvious he does not approach his position as a director of “children’s theater” but as the director of complicated theatrical works that happen to speak to, and resonate with, younger audiences.

Based on Wu Chen-En’s Chinese classic, “A Journey to the West,” the collaborative efforts of Brosius and Pei have been directed at capturing the essence of this story in a dance-oriented production that will be accessible to children and families.

“It’s really a hero’s journey,” Brosius said. “A hero’s journey is always a great story, and it’s also a coming-of-age story; the monkey, who is impetuous and wild, and breaks into heaven to cause havoc, and is imprisoned in a volcano Ö

“What’s exciting is that then he breaks out and is given the opportunity to redeem himself.”

Transcending cultural roots

The play’s subject is a beloved cultural hero in his homeland.

“Every child in China thinks the monkey is a wonderful hero,” Pei said. “He has power, and he’s honest. He’s not your usual hero. Kids love it a lot, because it uses the kids’ eyes to show how a hero should be.”

While the character and his journey to become more than himself might be universal, the company is embracing the culture clash others might have tried to obscure.

For example, in this production, the Monkey King is played by two men – Li, a veteran actor in China, and Dean Holt, a company regular who has appeared in more than two dozen of its productions.

Pei said this East-West disparity is a central theme of the original text, which is in itself the chronicling of the Monkey King’s perilous journey to retrieve Buddhist holy books.

“There’s really nothing like it in American culture,” Brosius said. “It’s not Superman or Mickey Mouse but combines what we love about martial arts, dance, superheroes and comedy.”

Now in previews, the show has required everyone involved to adapt and evolve.

“Everything’s too tight,” said Li, who is accustomed to the longer and more traditional performances in Beijing.

Pei said, “Sometimes, I will fight with Peter too and say ‘Peter you cut this!’ but then I find out we are really in the same room and the same place, with the same ideas.”

Brosius said he agreed the benefits of collaboration outweigh the difficulties.

“We’re sharing techniques and creating a new language,” Brosius said. “The basic assumption is to find an entirely new way of telling the classic story.”

And with “The Monkey King,” much like the company’s other productions concerning such issues as poverty, racism and war, this determination to be fresh, energetic and relevant is what will surprise those who dismiss this as simply child’s play.

Pei said he wondered whether this was the first telling of “The Monkey King” in the United States.

Brosius said, “Others have done it before, but this will be the best time.”