Drama preview: “Journey to the West”

Ingrid Chan, Staff Writer

After recreating the French Revolution in “Les Miserables” last spring, the Diamond Bar High School Drama Department will bring to life a 16th Century Chinese legend starting Thursday.

 “Journey to the West,” written by Wu Cheng’en, is considered one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature, featuring action, adventure and comedy. In the West, the story is often referred to as “Monkey,” one of the key characters.

Set in the Tang Dynasty, the story follows the Buddhist monk Tripitaka, played by Matthew Lee, and his legendary pilgrimage to the more western regions of his time, namely Central Asia and India, in his mission to obtain sacred Buddhist sutras. Accompanied by the three disciples, Monkey (Nick Azurin), Pig (Daniel Durkee) and Sha Monk (Amelia Anijielo), sent by the Gautama Buddha (Nina Wang) to atone for their sins, Tripitaka’s journey is enlivened by the interaction between himself, his companions and the dragon prince who tags along.  The story draws strongly from Chinese folk religion as well as Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.

“It’s so physically taxing.  Much more tiring than what we’ve done before,” Lee said.  “It’s probably one of the first times we’ve ever incorporated martial arts or really big stage fighting.  One of the main characters, played by Nick Azurin, literally has to flip, spin, kick and wheel the staff around.”

Due to the nearly uninterrupted comedy within the story, the students attended workshops with instructor Ron Milts about Commedia Dell’arte an Italian form of theater that  capitalizes on interactive humor to guide and accustom them to the unique movements associated with it.  

Vaudevillian humor also plays a role in the  performance. Its concept is similar to that of Commedia Dell’arte, but vaudevillian is more of a physical, slapstick style of humor.

The theatre department will be following the original script quite accurately, with the exception of cutting out scenes in order to cater to time restraints. They jumped right into rehearsals from the start of school, beginning to memorize and practice the script from the moment the cast list was confirmed.  

“Journey to the West” will be the second DBHS play judged by the California Educational Theatre Association, the first one being last year’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” CETA is one of the three major theatre education organizations in California, instrumental in getting the Theatre and Dance Act passed.  High schools throughout California put on annual fall plays that CETA sends professional judges to, possibly nominating productions and individual students for awards.

Every play is different, but I believe that this is the first time we’ve done a play based on Chinese literature that includes so many elements of different Asian cultures,” drama teacher Beatrice Casagran said via email.

The costumes for this play will also be vastly different from what the drama department normally handles. Some of the costumes, such as the headpieces for Yama, Guanyin, Tripitaka, Pig, Green Orchid, the Monkey and the Jade Emperor were all designed and constructed by students.  Several others were constructed by the Theatre Company but designed by the DBHS drama department, while the rest were either rented from the Theatre Company or purchased.

To add music to the play, the Drama Department asked DBHS alumnus Will Nazareno to compose original music for the show, which will be performed  by DBHS musicians during the performance.

“I’m very proud of how collaborative and complex this show is,” Casagran said. “I think it is creatively ambitious and it has taught students about a group of characters from literature about whom most were previously unfamiliar.”

“Journey to the West” will be performed in the DBHS theater at 7 p.m. Nov. 3-5 and at 4 p.m. on Nov. 6.