By Stephen Wilson

The road to enlightenment seems to be paved with a monkey companion.

And time, lots of time. 

And tribulations: battles, demon tormentors, and death.

No wonder enlightenment is so difficult to obtain and so few begin the journey.

But it is fun.

At least that was the case as the Theater Department staged a Zoom presentation of Monkey. The Chinese folk tale, adapted from the novel by Wu Ch’eng-En, was slated to be the main-stage production last spring until campus shut down in response to the pandemic.

But the show must go on.

Such has been the case all year with the department as they have hosted live Zoom musicals, virtual performances, and recorded radio shows.

“In times of isolation and social distance, artists still seek ways to deliver relevant messages and work to audiences who hunger for connection,” says Suzanne Westfall, professor of theater and department head.

Monkey went on with a limited run this year and drew on some of the same cast of students, which now included one young alumnus in the leading role.

The story follows Monkey, whose playfulness is irrepressible … or so he thinks until confined for 500 years. His release is granted by a well-meaning monk who begins a journey to obtain ancient spiritual scrolls. Joining the monk is Monkey and a motley crew of monsters (pig and sea dragon). 

Over the course of the journey, Monkey learns to fight less and defend more, offer forgiveness, trust faith, save others, develop empathy, and make sacrifices.

An enlightening show such as this also needed a sophisticated delivery. The crew did that by using watercolor scenery, unconventional Zoom formats, passing props between locations, and stage combat—slapping others over Zoom might soon be a standard feature. 

Gennie Neuman-Lambert, scenic and production design, James Koldtiz, video and animation design, and Erin Hopwood, costume and illustration design, brought a host of experience working in a virtual universe.

“I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the cast and design team that allowed us to salvage this show from the despair of the pandemic to this amazing and joyful production,” says Westfall.

The shock at the end of the journey—that the sacred spiritual scrolls were blank—was not surprising.

The students and theatergoers over the course of COVID-19 are wise enough to know that the journey is the message, that the lessons from and responses to this pandemic from its isolation, affliction, and loss bring enlightenment.

As Monkey concludes, “We are all stories in the end, so make it a good one.”


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