Forbidden Phoenix at Gateway Theatre a Monkey King of a performance

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Empress Dowager, played by Grace Fatkin, sings a solo. Photo by Tim Matheson.

What do you get when you mix Peking opera, martial arts and western musical theatre? The Forbidden Phoenix, Gateway theatre’s latest production that refreshes the 5000-year-old Chinese tale of the Monkey King.

The king, also known as Sun Wukong, is a monkey with human tendencies endowed with supernatural strength. He is played by Ontarian Michael Dufays, who aside from being an acclaimed actor is also a Tae Kwon Do black belt specializing in stage combat making him a perfect match for this role.

Dufays gets a chance to show off his fighting skills early on. In the opening scene sporting the traditional white-painted face of Peking opera, he is accompanied by a live orchestra beneath the massive main stage playing classical Chinese theatre music.  He expertly twirls a pole with baskets on either end, knocking down a pair of government soldiers who foolishly try to steal precious rice he has gathered for his starving son Laosan.

Social issues explored

The Forbidden Phoenix isn’t all song and dance – it attempts to tackle themes of immigration, racism and environmentalism. Dufays crosses paths with the evil Empress Dowager [Grace Fatkin], ruler of China, who is tired of the Monkey King’s non-conformity and banishes him to the dreaded west where many have gone but few return. He is forced to leave Laosan, played by returning Gateway performer Alvin Tran who was in last year’s Chinese head tax musical Red Letters. Laosan, devastated, is consoled by the Monkey King who promises to bring him to the west once he ensures that it is safe. It parallels the countless Chinese who left the mainland alone to travel to Canada in the late 1800s and attempted to earn enough money to bring their families over – a role fittingly played by Tran in Red Letters.

The music is definitely one of the strongest parts of the show. In true multicultural fashion, even hip hop is introduced – after arriving in the west, the Monkey King meets the evil leader Horne [Damon Calderwood], and both break into a rap battle. Musical instruments are also a blend of east meets west, with the ten-piece orchestra utilizing everything from Chinese stringed instruments like the pipa and sanxian to more familiar violins and cellos. The singing from the cast was mostly strong: Dufays, who along with Calderwood shoulder a lot of the vocal workload, belted out surprisingly impressive tunes. Tran tries to hold his own, but struggled to hit the higher notes.

Showdown at Forbidden Mountain

The latter half of the show deals with the rivalry between the Monkey King and Horne. The audience is also introduced to the Phoenix [Kazumi Evans], guardian of Forbidden Mountain and its inhabitant the Iron Dragon — a mythical creature with unfathomable powers. Horne wants to exploit the dragon for his own personal gain, and uses coolies [racial slur for Asian labourers] as kamakazi bombers to blow up the mountain to release the beast within. Horne tries to enslave the Monkey King as well, who of course refuses and teams up with the Phoenix to defeat him so that he can be reunited with his son.

The set design was simple but effective – three towering mobile “pillars” served as both the backdrop as well as prisoner cages, manipulated by an ensemble team that wore black costumes each emblazoned with a different Chinese character on their chest representing elements like earth, water and fire. There were even special effects like thundering bass from overhead speakers and blinding bursts of light emitted from a single strobe to emulate explosions. Perhaps saving the best for last, audiences are in for a treat when the Iron Dragon is finally revealed in all its gargantuan glory.

The Forbidden Phoenix is an interesting retelling of the classic story, especially with its fusion of both Chinese and western influences that include music, language and even the actors themselves. It’s worth the watch for those that have never heard of the Monkey King, and fans that can’t get enough of the variations on the legendary adventures of Sun Wukong. It is on at Gateway Theatre until April 23 — tickets are $43 for adults, $27.50 for students.

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