Arts / Punky Monkey goes west

Aljin Abella as Monkey Theatre of Image Branco Gaica

Aljin Abella in his role of Monkey. Photo by Branco Gaica

MONKEY! With a twitch of his nose he can make himself small enough to creep inside an ear; the twirl of his magic staff and he can become tall as a mountain, and he can summon up a cloud to fly around on.

In short, as the song from the cult Japanese TV series goes, he’s “the punkiest monkey that ever popped”.

At age 29, Filipino-Australian actor Aljin Abella is definitely too young to have seen “Monkey” on TV when he was a kid, but he knows about it.

That’s good, because he plays the mischievous simian in Theatre of Image’s stage adaptation of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel “Journey to the West”, and we’ll see him performing his tricks in Canberra soon.

Aljin Abella in his role of Monkey, story Page 12. Photo by Branco Gaica STORY Lia Reutens as Cynical Shrimp, Ivy Mak as Mandarin Fish and Aljin Abella as Monkey. Photo by Branco Gaica

Lia Reutens as Cynical Shrimp, Ivy Mak as Mandarin Fish and Aljin Abella as Monkey. Photo by Branco Gaica

Abella’s a bit worried, because he knows that Monkey absolutely hates bureaucrats because, as the story goes, he was imprisoned under a mountain for flouting the bureaucratic rules of Heaven before being released by the young monk Tripitaka on the condition he travel with him to return the sacred Buddhist scripts from India. They’re joined by two other “monsters”, the over-philosophical Sandy and the gluttonous, lascivious Pigsy.

“Such a famous story… I seem to remember that I knew of these iconic characters,” Abella tells me.

He seems made for the role. A child TV star in the post-“Monkey” era, he graduated from NIDA in 2006 and starred in everything from the TV series “Power Rangers Jungle Fury” to “La Cage aux Folles”, where he acted Todd McKenney off the stage.

Abella has landed on his feet in “Monkey”, co-directed by Kim Carpenter and John Bell.

“But I needed to get fit in a hurry… so I got into gym and long-distance running,” he says. He also had a go at learning Kung Fu. Good move, he shares the stage with three members of the Fairfield parkour group Team 9 Lives.

Carpenter, the designer and founder of Theatre of Image, conceived “Monkey” years ago and travelled to Hong Kong to study original sources. In early rehearsals Carpenter and Bell stood side by side. Carpenter explained the aesthetic and philosophy of “Monkey”, introducing the design, the puppets and the size of the space. Then Bell, the classical theatre master, took over for the acting side of things.

“It was a bit strange being co-directed by two different people, but after a couple of days we got into the groove,” he says.

Abella has read the whole 1500 pages of “Journey to the West”.

Monkey, he explains, “as a semi-divine creature with incredible powers, is never wanting for anything, but when he enters the Jade Palace he finds himself trapped in by bureaucracy – and he rebels”. Canberrans take note.

Monkey is arrogant, bold and cunning, so resorting to magic is the easy way out. Pigsy is greedy and lustful and Sandy is given to philosophical rants.

He won’t give away the ending, (in the book Monkey finds enlightenment) but says: “We try to create the whole journey, from start to finish, taking in some of the 99 trials of the pilgrims.”

So what’s his favourite trial? The TV series was packed with horrid demons, vulnerable maidens, disputes and drinking bouts.

Abella particularly likes the episode in which they meet the White Bone Demon, a shape-shifter that fools Tripitaka, Sandy and Pigsy, but not the shrewd monkey. The huge demon puppet takes up almost the whole stage.

So is there a message in “Journey to the West”? After all, in the TV series a voiceover regularly reminded us of the moral. Well, Abella says enigmatically: “The wonderful thing about Buddhism is that it can be applied practically.”

Buddhist monks have come to see the show and so have grown-ups, who loved the TV series, as well as a whole new generation of Monkey fans.

“Monkey: Journey to the West”, The Playhouse, April 23-25, bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

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