Sometimes, enlightenment is found in the journey, not the destination — and some journeys can be quite a trip, filled with monsters, spirits, gods and the occasional mortal.
The adventure begins Thursday (April 11) at the Nevada Theatre with the Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra’s spectacular presentation of “Journey to the West.”
Known for its lavish, elaborate — and award-winning — productions, CATS reaches for a new level of theatrics with “Journey to the West.”
“‘Journey to the West’ is a feast for the senses,” said Jeannie Wood, executive director of CATS.
This epic play features 21 actors portraying 137 characters in more than 50 scenes. There are more than 200 costumes and props. A small orchestra of talented musicians plays 29 instruments in an intricate blend of East meets West compositions.
Little known in the Western literature, “Journey to the West” is a Chinese classic premised on a translation of an imaginative 16th century novel, “His Yu Chi,” by Wu Ch’eng-en. Tony Award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman adapted the fantastical tale in 1995 from a translation by Anthony C. Yu.
Although the novel is loosely based on the true story of a seventh century monk’s 16-year trek pilgrimage from China to India to find the true roots of Buddhism, it has evolved over the centuries into mythological legend that is still highly popular in modern Chinese literature and society.
While Zimmerman’s play is about the search for spiritual enlightenment, “It’s not in-your-face Buddhism,” said veteran director Diane Fetterly. “It’s fun!”
“Journey to the West” is Fetterly’s fifth production for CATS — and the most challenging of her career, said the former artistic director of the Foothill Theatre Company.
In fact, this ambitious interpretation of the timeless Chinese fable — a year in the planning and eight weeks in rehearsal — is pushing virtually everyone in the cast and crew beyond their comfort zones. The play is so complex that the company uses an intricate color-coded chart to track scenes, actors, props and other logistics throughout the two-act production.
Fetterly noted that just one scene required 14 pages of directions and six hours of rehearsal.
Because there are so many scene changes, “there are no blackouts,” Fetterly said. The mechanics of the theater are integrated with the action of the play, she explained.
Michael Baranowski, who plays the rambunctious Monkey King, admitted to stage fright the first two weeks of rehearsal, but now, “I can’t wait for my grandkids to see it.”
Indeed, “Journey to the West” has something for everyone with scenes ranging from vaudevillian comedy to exciting fights to Bollywood dancing to religious mysticism and more.
As the story goes, a studious but naïve monk named Tripitaka (played by Danny McCammon) sets out on a treacherous journey over the Himalayas and across the Gobi Desert to seek out sacred Buddhist scriptures in India.
And as legend has it, three demigods are fated to protect and serve — as well as to scare and annoy — Tripitaka on his risky path to enlightenment.
“It’s such a crazy challenge,” said McCammon. “These characters are enigmas.”
Baranowski’s scene-stealing Monkey King is intelligent, tricky and Tripitaka’s intellectual nemesis.
Brett Torgrimson plays Bajie, the Pig, a lustful, lazy lout — and a still popular character in cartoons and beer commercials in today’s China.
Kate Tobie portrays Sha Monk the River Monster. Despite the monster’s menacing name, Sha Monk proves to be steadfast, courageous and strong.
On their perilous search for enlightenment, the band of pilgrims face a series of adventures and misadventures involving beasts, demons, gods and several lively song-and-dance numbers.
Matching the frenetic antics on stage is the equally frenzied backstage action. To pull off this complex work of theatrical magic, Fetterly has assembled a crew of veterans, many of whom she’s worked with previously in CATS and Foothill Theatre Company productions.
Like the cast, many of the crew are fulfilling multiple roles. They include costume, set and properties designer Teresa Shea, hair and make-up designer Sara Quay, lighting designer Tim Dugan, musical director Tynowyn Woolman, choreographer Monkey King Baranowski, technical director Tom Taylor, sound engineer Chris Christensen and stage manager Jessica Guise.
Nothing in Western literature quite compares to the extraordinary tale told in the Far East’s “Journey to the West.” Various reviewers have likened it to everything from “Pilgrim’s Progress” to “The Wizard of Oz” to “The Fellowship of the Ring,” but in truth, it’s all that and more.
“It’s really open to interpretation,” Fetterly concluded. “You have to use your imagination.”
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer living in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org