Based on novel by Grace Lin; Adapted by Colleen Britt, Debra Hess and Linda van Kesteren
Directed and Choreographed by Colleen Britt and Linda van Kesteren
Produced by Britt and van Kesteren in association with Infinite Variety Productions
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 8.27.16
VENUE #6: The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street
by Ran Xia on 8.22.16
Aoi Furutate and Fatima Zahra Amr in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Photo by PJ Valentini.
BOTTOM LINE: A stage adaptation of Grace Lin’s story about a young girl who goes on a journey in order to bring fortune to her family, and discovers truths about life in the process.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon follows the story of Minli (Aoi Furutate), a poor peasant girl from China, who leaves her family on Fruitless Mountain in order to seek fortune from the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s is a typical hero’s quest: the figures the heroine encounters during her journey are largely symbolic, and the plot of the story exists in a world of extraordinary creations. Throughout her journey Minli encounters a dragon that cannot fly, a talking fish, a Magistrate and a tiger, and the King of the City of Bright Moonlight. The journey takes Minli through mountains and forests, during which she has to overcome various obstacles, find the “borrowed line,” and bring it back to the Old Man of the Moon. The story is rich with metaphors as well as elements taken from ancient Chinese folklore. This magical tale, the brainchild of children’s writer Grace Lin, is a poignant examination of what are the most valuable things in life, and an ode to virtues such as contentment, faith, and altruism.
The ensemble in this production creates different spaces—a house, a river, a city— with ropes of different colors. These ropes also become the “characters” including the tiger, the Magistrate, the Dragon, and the Old Man of the Moon. One must notice the connection between these characters and the colors that represent them: for example, the color green symbolizes the greed of both the Magistrate and the tiger.
To create the physique of the dragon, the whole ensemble moves as one, which is the most exciting moment of the show. In fact, adding more moments like this would make the production more cohesive. Aoi Furutate convincingly portrays Minli, the heroic little girl who puts others’ needs before her own. Furutate's skilled physical movement, incorporating martial arts and dance, is mature beyond her age, and another highlight.
What this production lacks is a cohesive story: the scenes jump from one to another without consistent transitions. The narrator doesn’t introduce the characters with clarity, which makes the show difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the book. In order to bring this play more to life, and not just do a Pictionary-version of the novel, creators Colleen Britt, Debra Hess, and Linda van Kesteren might reconsider how to connect the scenes with exposition that offers context.
Additionally, the use of traditional Peking opera masks is both inaccurate and negligent with respect to the cultural traditions from which this piece draws. In Peking opera the masks (which are usually painted on the performers' faces, but here are actual masks) are character-specific: red indicates righteousness and bravery, purple symbolizes wisdom, white indicates malevolence, and yellow means cruelty. Several other masks are highly recognizable due to their additional cultural significance: the masks of Monkey King (an archetypal character, like Odin or Krishna) and Guan Gong, as just two examples. So imagine my astonishment when I saw a white (evil) mask on the Old Man of the Moon, the face of Monkey King on the Magistrate’s daughter-in-law, and masks for several other characters that have no relation to Journey to the West.
Given recent discussions about race in casting, it is also worth pointing out there are no Chinese actors in this mostly white ensemble. It is of course unfair to say that a Chinese story can only be told by Chinese people. However, there is undoubtedly a large pool of Asian actors who grew up with these traditional stories, actors who could draw from their own cultural heritage to help this team bring more clarity to this production. I have no doubt that the creators of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon had the best of intentions in translating this tale onto the stage; Lin's novel is moving and its draw for theatre-makers is undeniable. Adapting such a story is an admirable task, and by no means a piece of cake. Much of the difficulty comes from the number of traditional elements involved, elements that make an accurate translation difficult, and therefore require much dramaturgical effort; this production would benefit from such dramaturgical expertise.
I hope this team continues to work on Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It is a magical tale with valuable messages that need to be shared.
(Where the Mountain Meets the Moon plays at VENUE #6: The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, through August 27, 2016. The running time is 1 hour. Performances are Sat 8/13 at 4:15; Thu 8/18 at 6:15; Sat 8/20 at Noon; Tue 8/23 at 2:30; and Sat 8/27 at 2:15. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit infinitevarietynyc.org.)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is adapted by Colleen Britt, Debra Hess, and Linda van Kesteren from the book by Grace Lin. Directed, Choreographed, and Produced by Colleen Britt and Linda van Kesteren in association with Infinite Variety Productions. Music Director is Daniel Denver. Lighting Design by Kate August. Set Design by Luis Martines-Morales.
The cast is Ashley Adelman, Fatima Zahra Amr, Kate Britton, Maria Claire Friesen, Aoi Furutate, Mel Gonzales, and Jeannine Scarpino.