Retelling the story of Sun Wukong performed in English with Chinese subtitles, ENLIGHTENMENT by Joe Paradise Lui explores a wide variety of themes within this classic narrative. Covering issues such as sexual assault, police brutality, and institutionalised racism sounds like a heavy delivery that you might need to brace yourself before viewing. However, the subtle and delicate storytelling within Joe’s script, along with Marcel Dorney’s careful direction have enabled this substantive offering to not be overwhelming. Viewers can walk in with whatever experiences they may have which taint their perception of this story, and every single interpretation is correct. Until it’s not.
I spent the entire show so keen to hate on the racist and misogynistic police officer played by Connor Gallacher, and yet I didn’t walk out bloated with the burden of bitterness. Connor’s performance was chilling. The exploration of the grief within his character’s death twisted my perception to ponder the complex and unprescribed nature of grieving. As much as that character’s actions were abhorrent, you can’t help but sympathise when his professional partner grieves his death.
Merlynn Tong in ENLIGHTENMENT photography by Devika Bilimori.
I could go on to tell you a summary of each character arc and how well the actors portrayed them. I chose just one character to give insight into a consistent approach across the whole show. It was written in such a way that no single element of the story stood out. Despite the heavy themes, one theme did not overpower the others, each theme was explored equally and given the level of importance they respectively deserve. This allows the viewer to be guided by their own expectations or biases. While some content may be triggering, and content warnings do exist, the messages are not delivered forcefully. Nor are you enticed or manipulated to pay credence to any particular element. Until you are. Whichever character or theme you are drawn to in your viewing, there will be a plot twist that will challenge your opinion of the entire story. There is no antagonist, nor protagonist. By the time it’s finished, you won’t know how you feel about the characters. Marcel’s direction did well in honouring this delicate storytelling, which is evident by having recieved the Green Room award for best ensemble.
Emily Tomlins in ENLIGHTENMENT, production design by Cherish Marrington. Photography by Devika Bilimori.
The production design by Cherish Marrington manifested a refined and subtle oriental style. The wheelchair seating in the back didn’t provide the best angle to align with the artwork projected on the curtains, however everything else was too impressive to be tainted by something such as that. This includes the artwork itself. 巴丢草 (Badiucao) illustrations provided neon imagery preparing the viewers for each scene. The chopsticks picking up a broken eggplant is now burned into my retina, and every time I think about it, I relish in the pathetic fragility of the male ego.
The high production value is maintained in Joe’s lighting design, with beautifully effortless gradients flowing between red and blue in a way that makes it impossible to tell when the colour switched. Joe is a savant who incorporates various colour concepts to their lighting design. After a blue, red gradient caressed my eyeballs, a stygian response was initiated. A yellow light on Alice Qin’s face before fading to black stimulated my eyes in ways I’ve never experienced before.
Alice Qin, Merlynn Tong in ENLIGHTENMENT photography by Devika Bilimori.
My take on this performance is just one of an endless array of potential experiences you might have watching this show. For friends that grew up listening to the Monkey King story, their varying opinions of the retelling showed just how rich ENLIGHTENMENT is. As someone who was exposed to the story for the first time via this retelling, I sat in that room comfortably embracing the uncomfortable topics discussed on the foundation of an old tale. The biases I brought into the show are probably obvious based on which elements I chose to write about. However, that does not mean that any performances stood out, nor any themes were given more stage time. The onus of perception is entirely on the viewer. Whichever biases you bring in, I guarantee they will be challenged. I AM IN AWE.
Joe Paradise Lui’s ENLIGHTENMENT is on for two more nights Dec 16-17 at The State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground.