Having made its own journey west from Boston's Huntington Theater Company (which also co-produces) and Chicago's Goodman Theater, where director Mary Zimmerman originally staged this ancient Chinese tale, Journey to the West has finally arrived at the Zellerbach Playhouse for its West Coast premiere at the hands of the Berkeley Repertory Theater. The itinerary seems important to mention; the show has to do with celebrating life's journey as opposed to any imagined or desired destination. But don't dismiss Journey to the West as a simple-minded Buddhist homily about living for the moment: It's its own destination, and under Zimmerman's vigorous direction, it takes the audience into a universe of monsters, cloud-riding immortals, bodhisattvas, and humble pilgrims on the wings of a production that is visually glorious, theatrically stunning, and as lithe and lively as the various creatures who populate it.
Based on one of the great works of Chinese fiction, the tale itself is so universal as to be generic: A monk called Tripitaka T'ang (Nelson Mashita) undertakes the arduous journey from China to India in search of Buddhist scriptures and, of course, enlightenment. He is protected and accompanied by the Monkey (Doug Hara), a charming and highly evolved magical creature in his own right; he has been evicted from heaven for hubris, and his way back into the divine fold can only be secured by successfully guiding Tripitaka to the land of the Western Heaven. That they are joined by other extraordinaries such as the Pig (S¯ren Oliver), who was once marshal of the River of Heaven, and Sha Monk (Paul Oakley Stovall), a former captain of the Heavenly Court, is almost beside the point. You expect wondrous creatures in this sort of story. What you also expect, and too rarely get, is wonderment of the theatrical variety. The combination of Zimmerman's directorial imagination and this larger-than-life material is formidable.
Far from letting the text's sheer bulk (the original consists of some 100 chapters in 1,700 pages) and tradition weigh her down, Zimmerman seems to have found the challenges liberating; three hours fly by in the existential blink of an eye. She is greatly aided by the visual effects of Scott Bradley's beautiful set -- a red, blue, yellow, and gold Chinese court -- which freely adapts to become a mountain, a river, an ice field, or the Western Heaven. A trap door here, a treadmill there, a billow of silk, and magic is easy to believe in. The fabulous costumes of Allison Reeds create immortals who float on clouds and creatures like the Dragon King. A silk train worn by the Buddha (Jane C. Cho) becomes a river of gold following that deity's drop through a hole in the floor. Onstage musicians (Chyong-Hwa Chang, Valentin Gregor, and Willy Schwarz) provide atmosphere, accompaniment, and pacing (music is by Schwarz, Miriam Sturm, and Michael Bodeen), while the versatile ensemble -- headed by Kim Miyori as the bodhisattva Kuan Yin -- morphs effortlessly into and out of body shapes and characters.
But Journey to the West is Zimmerman's vision, pure and simple. It is her whimsy not to understate the contributions of the company that provides the quirky visual humor in the opening scenes, and it is her own presumed sense of awe that allows the drama to progress from quaint folk tale to majestic myth. For as the expedition proceeds, acquiring enormous weight and power along the way, the lessons begin to resonate with increasing urgency. We find ourselves suffused with the story's enormous compassion, and Tripitaka's "quest for origin" has carried us aloft to the theatrical equivalent of the Western Heaven.