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Theater Spotlight: Experience Appleton North’s journey of a monk

Performance: “Journey to the West”

Presented by: Appleton North High School
Location: Viterbo University
Running: Nov. 20 8 p.m.
Tickets: $7 per ticket

Written by Tony Award-winning theater director and playwright Mary Zimmerman, Appleton North High School is proud to present “Journey to the West,” a show rich in culture, spirituality, comedy and adventure. After performing the show last May, Appleton North applied to perform the show at Wisconsin’s High School Theater Festival at Viterbo University. The show will be one of three plays performed throughout the festival.

Zimmerman’s play adaptation is based off a story originally published as a novel in the 16th century, which grew wide in popularity in East Asia and was translated by Anthony C. Yu. The story focuses on a journey of a monk and his fabled pilgrimage from China to India in search of sacred texts. Appleton North’s Theater Director Ronald Parker described it as an Eastern version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

A big fan of Zimmerman’s work, Parker has featured many of her plays, the first being the show “Metamorphoses” in 2005. Since “Journey to the West” has not been published yet, they received permission from Zimmerman to perform the show.

“I love her work because she’s a master at taking pieces of literature and finding a theatrical way to retell the story,” Parker says. “She’s a beautiful writer and a very imaginative creator of stage imagery.”

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Parker chose “Journey to the West” because of the culture if would expose to his students and audience members. In order to get a true feel for the story, Parker and his students, “had to learn a great deal about Eastern philosophy, Buddhism and the different ways that Eastern cultures saw almost everything,” Parker says.

“For the students, it’s really eye-opening to see that not everyone thinks the same way in the world, and I think they also went on a personal journey of their own,” he says. Talking to the students, it became clear that the show successfully met Parker’s goal of enriching students by exposing them to a foreign culture.

Austin Solheim, a senior playing the character “Pig,” says that learning about Buddhism “was the coolest part and the hardest part at the same time. It just took so much time to wrap your mind around.”

Even though students found understanding all of the concepts within the show challenging, they described it as one of the best aspects of the show. Senior Christine Augustine, playing the role of “Sha Monk,” said her favorite part of the play was that it “has such as profound message to the show that doesn’t always get portrayed in all plays.” It’s a story beyond ourselves and beyond the high school theater that we can take away and bring into our lives.”

Since it took so much thought for the performers to understand the religion included in the play, they added a child character to the story for the purpose of explaining concepts to the audience. The child “can interrupt the play when she doesn’t understand some aspect of Eastern religion, so the first time we mention reincarnation, she stops them and asks what that means,” says Parker.

Despite the unfamiliar religious and cultural concepts, Alex Hasse, playing the character “Monkey King,” describes the characters of the play as being relatable to the audience. “It’s a really fun show and has a little bit of everything, it has real-life morals, it has comedy, it has scary parts … it just over all has everything and it’s a really easy show to get into with really relatable characters,” says Hasse.

The morals of Eastern culture are expressed through the way the characters grow throughout the plot of the play. Senior Joseph Krohlow, playing the character “Tripitaka,” described his character as “kind of the one that learns the most on the journey. He goes through many trials and different adventures and eventually learns that it’s the journey that matters and not the end result.”

Hasse also describes how his character transforms throughout the show. He describes Monkey King as being “very boastful, and very full of himself. He strives to be the best in the world and heaven. He learns as many powers as he can, but obviously he gets into trouble because he doesn’t care. To re-gain merit, he accompanies the character Tripitaka and helps him along the way. Not only does he help Tripitaka, he really finds himself and he realizes that there is more than living for himself.”
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The portrayal of the characters onstage would not be possible within the efforts of the students involved with the sound effects and technical parts of the play. Katherine Larson, a senior, has been involved in plays as a theater technician since her freshman year. During “Journey to the West,” she is responsible for mixing and setting the sound levels to ensure the sounds blend with the actor’s voices, but don’t overpower them.

Larson says during her freshman year she “tried out for the show and didn’t get in and tech was my backup plan.” Instead of tying directly into the character’s emotions, she described that the technician’s role is “very practical and that attracted me a lot to it.” The experience of being a technician has been worthwhile to Larson, and she described it as being “another aspect of theater that I hadn’t really been aware of before.”

Whether you want to learn more about Eastern philosophy, savor a story built around relatable characters or simply enjoy the culmination of Appleton North High School’s students’ and staff’s efforts to create a great show,” Journey to the West” is a performance you will not want to miss. For more information, visit appletonnorththeatre.com

— By Jessica Morgan

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