Shaolin Monks | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Shaolin Monks

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The Shaolin Temple, deep in the Shaoshi Mountains of central China, was erected in 495 AD by order of an emperor to house a Buddhist monk from India. Almost a century later it became the cradle of Zen Buddhism when another visiting monk-scholar, Bodhidharma, brought with him from India a reverence for nature and contemplation. Paradoxically, Zen Buddhists came to consider the self-defense implicit in the traditional martial arts, or kung fu, essential to protect serenity. Incorporating meditation and mimicry of animals into a system of daredevil maneuvers, the Shaolin monk-warriors gained renown throughout China, their heroic exploits celebrated in classic literature and, today, in movies. Jackie Chan exhibits a derivative southern style of the movement while Jet Li--the more stunning of the two--was an all-China Shaolin champion several times. Shaolin kung fu is passed from one generation to the next, each adding new moves to the repertoire, and requires a pilgrimage to the temple followed by years of grueling apprenticeship. It took the Boxer Rebellion, when some foolhardy souls thought they could ward off bullets, to disprove the notion that Shaolin fighters were invincible. The form's gravity-defying stunts, mental concentration, and choreographed pageantry are all on display in this lavishly staged spectacle, Wheel of Life. (Another paradox: Shaolin monks aren't supposed to strut their stuff, but here are 20-some performers in a show promoted by House of Blues, dubbed by one critic "Riverdance Meets Crouching Tiger.") The show's succession of kung fu demos and mimed interludes, accompanied by folk tunes, Buddhist chants, and New Age orchestral waves, has a sort of narrative taken from legend: monks save the emperor from foreign invaders only to be slaughtered by him when they insist on returning to the temple. The choreography is efficient, but the acrobatics are truly dazzling--one man is hoisted aloft on razor-sharp spears, another stands upside down on his index fingers. Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State, 312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500. Friday, February 7, 7 PM. $32-$47.

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