The story of the Monkey King is probably the best known legend to come out of China. Like many such stories, it is about transformation. For The Monkey Queen, playwright Diana Tso switches the gender of the shape-shifting mythic monkey and simultaneously tells the story of how a Canadian-born girl finds her Chinese roots.
Hong Kong-born Canadian dancer/choreographer William Yong directs a show that is equal parts dance, storytelling, acting and singing. He is also listed as dramaturge, choreographer and scenic designer.
Young actor and recent theatre school graduate Nicholas Eddie plays opposite Tso, more or less mastering ballet moves he was never trained for.
The 65-minute show, staged in the small space at the Theatre Centre, is surprisingly easy to follow, given all the roles that Tso and Eddie must shift in and out of.
The Monkey King, the warrior Sun Wukong, grew out of legend and is the hero of a 16th-century epic novel, The Journey to the West. According to the novel, he was born from a stone, possesses supernatural powers and is a trickster. The warrior monkey demonstrates Taoist practices, fights off demons and is imprisoned by the Buddha.
Tso loved the Monkey King stories and always wanted to play him but would never be cast in a male part. So she made her own adaptation. Monkey Queen, like her gender opposite, is a warrior of immense strength and is equipped for speed; she skips continents in a single somersault. Born in Canada, she travels east to China to discover her origins.
Yong remembers the Monkey King stories as cartoons on Hong Kong TV when he was a small boy. In partnering with Tso, he drove her to expand the performance possibilities of her play.
First you need a set that can adapt to worlds only imagined, as the characters move through time and space, legend and reality. This is done with a zig-zagging catwalk above the stage floor, so that the players are either flying or sinking below earth level.
The warrior queen’s travels take her to a shaman woman. Eddie dons a wig to impersonate this spirit guide. He also plays a demon and the Buddha. Exceedingly tall this young actor is also pliable, so he can lift Tso and move like a dancer.
Tso, alternating between the queen and the girl growing up in Canada, prances with lightness and grace, all the while telling her story.
The frequent transformations mean conveying the image of a carp in the bottom of a lake, a blue heron and a polar bear. The allegory here refers to a threatened natural world. Lighting designer Rebecca Picherack and sound composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia greatly assist in the more than usual willing suspension of disbelief required to enjoy The Monkey Queen.
The Monkey Queen
By Diana Tso
Directed by William Yong
At the Theatre Centre, Toronto, until Dec. 2
Photo of Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie by David Hou