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Theatre Review: Journey To The West

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mysterious immortals, otherworldly monsters and a spiritual quest through far-off lands dominate this allegorical adventure. It's the annual show by Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra, or CATS, an ambitious Nevada County group that mounts one big, elaborate production each spring.

"Journey to the West" offers a vision of prehistoric China in which clever animals and ancient trees can talk, and celestial beings fly down from heaven to meddle in human affairs. This happens early in the play, when the immortal Guanyin, or Lady Boddhisattva, decides to test the mettle of a young monk who is said to have a good grasp of the Buddhist scriptures. Guanyin disguises herself as a doddering old nun, then pitches the young scholar some easy questions.

Lady: What is the greatest crime?

Monk: Hatred.
Lady: The greatest sorrow?
Monk: Possessions.
Lady: How does one find happiness?
Monk: Act with a pure heart, and happiness will follow you like a shadow, unshakable
Lady: And how does one find suffering?
Monk: By pursuing happiness.

Guanyin then slyly asks the monk if he would recognize a Boddhisattva in a face-to-face meeting. The young monk doesn't see that an actual Boddhisattva is posing the question. So Guanyin throws off her disguise, revealing her true identity.

Lady: You saw nothing but this old shell. Not the true spirit of Guanyin (gasps heard). Although you recite very well, you have not gained insight. You are still trusting to those old robbers, your eyes and your ears."

Monk: Forgive me, Lady Boddhisattva!
Lady: I have a message for the court from the great Tathagata Buddha!"

The monk is soon dispatched an arduous 16-year spiritual journey. And he picks up travelling companions - a meddlesome monkey, a talking pig, and a water demon. If this odd foursome recalls an American saga with a scarecrow, a tin man, and a cowardly lion… just recall that "Journey to the West" came first.

This fast-moving adventure blends inventive visuals, Buddhist wisdom and impish humor. It's not perfect - some of the performers are earnest amateurs who bobble the occasional line. But CATS deserves credit for bringing this mythical extravaganza alive on stage in an elaborate, beautiful way. It's a rare theatrical experience well worth the trip to Nevada City.

Community Asian Theater of the Sierra presents "Journey to the West" through May 4th at the Nevada Theater in Nevada City.

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