Journey to the West

Goodman Theatre

When she was a little girl, director Mary Zimmerman told me last summer, she used to play a game with her mother: she’d wander out the back door and hide in the woods behind their house to see how long it took before she was missed. Only the game never worked–no matter how long she hid in the woods, her mother, a professor of comparative literature, would never leave her reading to look for her. Zimmerman would finally wander back home to find her mother in the same place at the same table with the same wall of books stacked around her.

One day Zimmerman wandered deeper than usual into the woods and happened across a little open-air theater. There she saw a troupe of actors rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dressed as fairies with little wings and diaphanous costumes and all running round and round led by Oberon and Titania. Suddenly the actor playing Oberon started laughing. “I’ve lost count,” he giggled. “I don’t know how many more times we’re supposed to run around the stage.” Then the whole company started laughing.

Zimmerman was enchanted. Not just by the costumes but also by the sight of so many grownups being playful and childlike. Adults just didn’t act like that in her world. (Zimmerman’s mother wasn’t the only academic in the family: her father taught physics at the university level.)

Zimmerman told me this story by way of explaining how she first fell in love with theater, calling this event her “primal scene.” What’s fascinating about the reminiscence is that it contains many of the preoccupations that ripple through her shows: the abandoned child, the absent or ineffectual parent, the cruel authority figure, the holiness of words and books, the importance of playfulness, the journey through a mysterious, possibly dangerous place that leads unexpectedly to the discovery of something wonderful and transforming.

Zimmerman’s latest show–Journey to the West, her first Goodman main-stage production–gains much of its power and beauty by following the pattern of her earlier works. Her 1992 Lookingglass show Secret in the Wings told the story of a little girl “abandoned” by her parents (they’re going out for the evening) who is read a series of cruel Grimm fairy tales by an ogre of a baby-sitter. He keeps threatening her with the line “Will you marry me?” and many of the stories he reads are about children and their unhappy encounters with hostile parents or authority figures. Her much-lauded 1993 The Arabian Nights concerns another powerless if not evil parent. The hapless wazir, father of Scheherazade, seems to have no choice but to honor the king’s wish to marry her. The fact that King Schahriah marries and murders a new bride each night clearly troubles the wazir, but not so much that he packs up his family and flees the kingdom. Its up to Scheherazade and her sister to contrive a way to save her life: Scheherazade relates a series of tales –many of them, oddly enough, about cruel authority figures, abandoned lovers, and long journeys– that delay her death sentence.

Once again, in Journey to the West, Zimmerman distills her show from a mammoth text impossible to adapt page for page to the stage. Here it’s a collection of tales loosely based on the long, hazardous pilgrimage made by the monk Hsuan-tsang to India in the seventh century in quest of Buddhist scriptures (more holy words). These tales were repeated orally for centuries before being published in 1592–a process that, as any Jungian will tell you, gives them depth and psychic resonance, though Zimmerman’s take on these tales lacks the circuslike energy of the crowd-pleasing The Arabian Nights.

And once again Zimmerman gives herself plenty of latitude, making her adaptation a vehicle for her own obsessions and ideas. Thus the twin heroes of Journey to the West are a childlike, mischievous monkey and a dour, inflexible, rather weak and passive adult monk, Tripitaka. Interestingly, he’s an orphan: his mother abandoned him, after his father was killed, by placing him in a basket of reeds on the river (holy Moses!) before she committed suicide. On their journey, Tripitaka and the monkey encounter all manner of despots and lost souls. In one of the more moving moments, they encounter a Herod-like king so blinded by love for his young queen that he thinks nothing of ordering the hearts cut out of all the young boys in his kingdom because he believes that that will immortalize his love.

The production is full of Zimmermanisms: sumptuous costumes, beautiful music, dancelike movement, inventive stage effects, like using red ribbons for blood and fans for waves. Zimmerman’s love of beautiful costumes and props goes back at least as far as her first, self-produced version of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci in the late 80s, at the long-gone Edge of the Lookingglass. Actress Joy Gregory, who wasn’t even in the show, told me how much she enjoyed hanging around backstage during that production because of all the wonderful clothes and props Zimmerman had gathered.

The Goodman’s deep pockets have given Zimmerman the means to create a show of dazzling beauty. One of the high points of the first act is a scene in which the Buddha slowly walks down a long flight of stairs dragging behind a long, gold, slithering train that slips sensuously over the steps. Not since Frank Galati’s The Good Person of Setzuan has the Goodman stage featured so much eye candy.

As in her last Goodman production–The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, staged in the studio–the spectacle in Journey gives the show an air of diffidence and emotional distance, an effect not unlike that produced by the super cool aesthetics of fashion photography. Some have argued that Zimmerman’s work is cold and heartless–a kind of clockwork theater, brilliantly structured but mechanistic and manipulative. (This charge is also frequently leveled against Tom Stoppard, whose Hapgood Zimmerman once directed for Center Theater.)

If Zimmerman’s art were simply mechanical, however, she couldn’t achieve the moments of great power and passion that she does. These moments seem to spring from nowhere, like Schahriah’s declaration of love for Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights or Leonardo’s soliloquy at the end of Notebooks when he says, “All the while I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.” To be sure, Journey appears cool and distant to Western eyes, in part because Zimmerman works so hard to re-create onstage a majestic, contemplative, decidedly Eastern pace. Like the long, ceremonial scenes that typify Kurosawa’s films or the care taken in Japanese comic books to create a mood or sense of place in dozens of panels, this is art no Marvel writer or artist would ever attempt.

True, the wandering story in Journey lacks the suspense of The Arabian Nights, in which we asked ourselves, will this be the night that Scheherazade bores the king and gets killed? The question in Journey is “Will the monk finally realize that the only way to enlightenment is to renounce all desire and attachment to this world?” It’s a question that just doesn’t have the same oomph, especially for those of us who aren’t Buddhist.

And to be fair, the first act of this nearly three-hour show could stand a little trimming. It doesn’t help that Bruce Norris–an actor who usually overflows with charm and personal magnetism–plays the monk as a bitter, introverted pill. We never really care about the monk’s fate, and Norris is upstaged in every scene by Douglas Hara’s remarkable, hilarious monkey. So much so, in fact, that Norris’s monk frequently seems invisible even when he’s front and center. But in a play as filled with marvelous performances as this one, a single mistaken casting choice can’t really bring down the mood. Even if Hara were only half the monkey he is, Jenny Bacon’s endearing, comical bodhisattva, who acts as Athene to the wandering monk’s Odysseus, would lift the show.

The apparent coolness of Journey to the West doesn’t trouble me. It’s part of Zimmerman’s aesthetic: she’s playing a game with her audience similar to the one she played with her mother–hiding her heart in the forest of her words, dances, and props to see if we’re too lazy, distracted, or inattentive to see her. Those who watch this show with more than their eyes, and listen with more than their ears, will be richly rewarded.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Eric Y. Exit.