Each year the Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra brings to Nevada County an increasingly complex and visually stunning theatrical piece for its annual production. This year’s spectacle, “Journey to the West,” involves 21 actors playing 137 characters in more than 50 scene changes, utilizing more than 200 costumes and props. With the lush costumes and makeup, wonderful staging, lovely music and nicely done set, CATS has definitely raised the bar.
“Journey,” a fictionalized account of a true story from the seventh century, follows the ambitious, dangerous but often humorous 16-year pilgrimage of Tripitaka, a monk traveling from China to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. Tripitaka is joined by an unruly but learned monkey, a gluttonous pig and a river monster, all who have fallen from heaven’s grace and are required to serve Tripitaka in order to regain their previous stature. The troupe encounter gods, monsters, spirits, kings and even the Buddha before finally achieving enlightenment.
Unless you have some background in Chinese folk religion and mythology, you might find the story and characters easier to follow if you go online to read the brief Wikipedia synopsis about “Journey to the West.” Since the original book, written in the 16th century, consisted of 100 chapters and was then translated into four volumes by Anthony C. Yu in the late 1970s and adapted for the stage by Mary Zimmerman in 1995, having a bit of pre-knowledge would help orient those not familiar with this famous Chinese tale which even today continues to inform Chinese culture and values. Be prepared for some very lovely verses and sentiments in this saga based on Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.
The production values of this piece were excellent. Teresa Shea’s gorgeous scenic, costume and properties designs, Tim Dugan’s mood-setting lighting design, Tynowyn Woolman’s lovely music composition and direction of three musicians playing more than 29 Western and Eastern instruments, Sara Quay’s creative hair and makeup designs, Michael Baranowski’s character-enhancing choreography, and Tom Taylor’s technical wizardry all made for a visual and aural feast. My eyes and ears were repeatedly delighted.
Diane Fetterly’s creative direction utilized a number of very clever techniques. Watch for the nice use of blue fabric as river water, white fabric as snow and blue fans for waves. One particular moment that enthralled me was when three women lined up behind each other in a spotlight so that all the audience saw was one body with six arms moving gracefully. With so many actors, Fetterly was still able to move her actors around stage adeptly to keep visual interest. At times the pacing was a bit slow, but even then I was visually engaged with the colors and sights on the stage.
It really does take a village to produce as ambitious an undertaking as “Journey to the West” is. I recommend you go to the Nevada Theatre to soak in the spectacle and enjoy what a community theater group that sets its sights high can provide. “Journey” continues through May 4.
Hindi Greenberg won’t ever achieve enlightenment--she enjoys her worldly pleasures too much. Anyone want to share a Lazy Dog chocolate ice cream bar?