Constellation Theatre made its name with Mary Zimmerman’s crowning achievement in epic adaptation, The Arabian Nights. They followed by making a literal splash with Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, and are now staging one of the American director’s first epics, one that ventures even farther afield — Journey to the West.
Life, as they say, is about the journey, not the destination. And so it is here. There are a number of reasons making Journey to the West () worth catching, but none of them are about the story itself. After nearly three hours of a long and rambling story, your joy will reside elsewhere.
The production starts off strong. A.J. Guban has designed an awe-inspiring set, this one framed by a tipped wooden ring sturdy enough for the cast to walk on or swing from. Director Allison Arkell Stockman has assembled a fine creative team to dazzle with sheer theatrical spectacle, ultimately led by the vivid, creative lighting design of Colin K. Bills, whose work consistently puts the right accent on Kendra Rai’s varied and whimsical costumes. Pauline Grossman’s choreography often evokes natural elements, from water to rough terrain. Tom Teasley supplements the action with an appealingly subtle, exotic and mystical soundscape.
The show is subtitled “The Tale of the Monkey King,” with that role played with agility and expressiveness by Dallas Tolentino. Yet nearly halfway through, the tale shifts gears to focus on a monk, Tripitaka (Ashley Ivey), who, a quest with a ragtag group of eccentrics, seeks spiritual enlightenment. Lilian Oben makes for a ravishing bodhisattva Guanyin, who steers Tripitaka on his journey, supported by the mischievous Monkey King, a comically grotesque Pig (Ryan Tumulty), and a fearsome River Monster (Michael Kevin Darnall). With 13 actors filling the intimate Source Theatre stage, many doing quick-change work to play multiple characters, Journey to the West is an ensemble show through and through.
Several of the characterizations are so exaggerated for comic relief they become annoying — especially Tumulty’s pig grunts and porcine antics. And the show becomes bogged down as it goes in a confusing garble of a story with too many subplots and asides. It all seems to get too distracted by the journey, losing sight of the destination.
Journey to the West runs to May 22. At the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-204-7741 or visit constellationtheatre.org.
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