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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 18, 2002

'Monkey King' inspired by Beijing opera and kung fu

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Monica Cho and Jonathan Clarke Sypert monkey around in the Honolulu Theatre for Youth's production of "Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King."

Brad Goda

'Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King'

A play by Elizabeth Wong, produced by the Honolulu Theatre for Youth 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and again Oct. 26 at Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter 4:30 and 7:30 pm. Nov. 2 and 9 at Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College

$12 general, $6 those older than 60 and youths 3-18; free for children under 2


For her first-ever Honolulu Theatre for Youth costuming endeavor, Kathe James looked to Beijing opera and kung fu for inspiration.

Characters in Elizabeth Wong's "Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King," which opens Saturday, are cloaked in color and familiar robes. And, ahem, they kick butt, martial-arts-style.

The production, aimed for audiences 7 and older, explores the monkey king, a favored character of Beijing opera and Chinese mythology and folk tales. He's a trickster who performs heroic deeds — a simian superman, if you will.

"The cast features four members who play 12 roles," said James, who is known for costuming Frank DeLima and the Society of Seven in Waikiki and myriad TV shows, including the recent "Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding." "So how hard could it be to do 12 costumes?"

James was lured to the task because of the Beijing opera elements. "I had talked to Mark Lutwak (HTY artistic director) a while back about doing a show together, but never had time till now," she said.

The project could have been a designer's nightmare because it required mastering a precise look with headgear, beards and layered clothing that could be rapidly changed, often with hook-and-loop fastening material. Actors have a minute or even 30 seconds to quickly change and return to the stage with a new look and role. Further, it's a traveling show, so costumes had to be easily packable yet durable despite on-the-road wear and tear.

So 12 outfits for a cast of four were a challenge, considering the needs.

"In the end, it was a lot of fun," she said.

The cast members are Jonathan Clarke Sypert, Hermen "Junior" Tesoro, Kelly Williams and Monica Cho.

"One person plays one role, another plays two, the third plays four and the fourth plays five," said James. "It's a veritable symphony of changing clothes."

Sypert is the monkey king; Williams is Kuan Yin and a fairy acolyte; Tesoro is a monkey, General Fish Belly, the ogre, a hip-hop child and a fairy acolyte; and Cho is a monkey, dragon king, an immortal guru and the jade emperor.

They all figure in a burst of color and kung-fu action, said Los Angeles-based playwright Wong, here to tweak the play that was originally commissioned and premiered by the Denver Center Theatre. HTY's production is only the second staging of the work, with Cincinnati Playhouse doing one concurrently.

"It's hip-hop meets Beijing opera meets Hawaiian meets Zen meets Bruce Lee," Wong said of the hybrid concoction.

"It's physically demanding; it's my wacky martial-arts-Zen-and-yoga adaptation, inspired by the Chinese superhero who meets Curious George," she said of the multiple sources of her imagination. "It's very contemporary."

Fringe is fanciful and plentiful in "Monkey King." Thick, rope fringe commonly used in upholstery, is the substance James used to create a beard for the emperor figure. More delicate fringe, common for flapper dresses, accent other costumes.

Some costume pieces are shaped from cut plastic foam, covered with wire and fabric. James said the gear must be easily wearable and portable, because HTY will take the show on the road to the Neighbor Islands after its O'ahu run.

James said some of the characteristics of traditional mythical icons were retained in her costumes. "In my research, the monkey king always wore a little hat with a pompom, and neck scarf over what looks like martial-arts clothing. The ogre resembles a highway robber. Kuan Yin is in a white costume."

The dragon king costume is made from quilting prints of various hues and trims.

Kids who adore martial-arts, ninja and kung-fu figures will find the basic costumes appealing, said James.

"Everyone starts with a basic tai-chi pants and gi top, kind of the common karate look," she said. "Then we add wraps that look like kimono with three-quarter sleeves. Layering changes character. All held together with Velcro."