Shapeshifters, spirits and demons take to the Toronto stage in The Monkey Queen
The Monkey Queen (Red Snow Collective)—on at The Theatre Centre—is a quietly subversive play that adds childlike wonder and a female perspective to Wu Cheng’En’s fable-filled novel Journey to the West, an adventurous quest for knowledge featuring monsters, demons, and spirits galore.
In this show, we follow The Monkey Queen on her travels in search of enlightenment, what she calls her soul song, as she encounters supernatural beings that push and pull at her worldview. Her journey borrows freely from the talking animals, shapeshifters–of which she is one–and other literary magic found in Chen’En’s novel, taking the opportunity to go full fairy tale in that pretty much anything goes.
The rules of the play’s universe are basically whatever the characters decide. Transforming into an animal is simply a matter of saying it. This means there’s a massive demand on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, such that playwright and star, Diana Tso, and co-star Nicholas Eddie, often challenged us to confront the state of our childhood wonder.
Tso brings an overflowing enthusiasm to each of the Queen’s new meetings. She’s like a cartoon come to life, for whom the normal wear-and-tear of physical exertion does not apply. There’s an emotional flatness here that matches up well with the paper-thin characters fairy tales tend to deal in, ones that stand for ideals more than fully fleshed-out humans you can hang your soul on and root for.
The same goes for Eddie, who brings poise and fearlessness to his formidable job of playing everyone The Monkey Queen meets. He is consistently larger-than-life as characters who are literally not of this world.
The challenge with paper-thinness is that our clear path to identifying with anyone on stage is disrupted. To put it plainly, The Monkey Queen is subversive because it’s a children’s play presented as one for adults. To participate in it fully, we must leave our dignity at the door and with it the desire to avoid anything seen as silly, such as a heavy reliance on make-believe.
Tso and Eddie strip down their storytelling process to the bare bones of make-believe. They emphasize a tell-and-show approach that involves one character narrating the action as the other mimes it. We are tasked with separating the narrators, which pop up throughout, from characters in whom we are trying to become invested.
As an audience, we must be prepared to meet the performers halfway in terms of imagining the world to life, at the risk of letting the illusion crumble into people sitting in a room in the dark.
My guest, Glenda, and I agree that William Yong’s directing and choreography serve as ballast to this universe without rules. His moves, hypnotic in their strangeness, mirror his openness to playing with abrupt transitions, longer scenes, and the difference in size between his actors to lend the work an auteur’s touch.
It’s his work, coupled with the cast’s single-minded earnestness, that make The Monkey Queen a collection of memes. And I mean this as a complement, in case it needs clarifying. The numerous memorable images the duo performs are each singular in their hilarity, and none are worth ruining here. It’s just that, to access them, we need to accept that contrived solutions are simply the way the plot moves from one point to the next. It’s a part of our brains that can be difficult to turn off at will after a certain age.
Photo of Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie by David Hou.