By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
To showcase Mary Zimmerman’s “The White Snake,” playing through April 26 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at the Old Globe, designer Daniel Ostling created three walls and a raked floor.
Apparently, Zimmerman (who directs her own work) did the rest, imagining elements to support the fable, which originated in the East and took up residence and enchanted enhancement in ancient China.
Zimmerman’s lovely adaptation/production of “The White Snake” received its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (Feb. 18 – July 8, 2012) and has since traveled to major regional theaters including Chicago’s Goodman, Princeton’s McCarter, and the Berkeley Rep.
Acknowledging there are many versions of the tale, “The White Snake” is a transformation story.
White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) grows weary of thousands of years in the mountains. Fascinated with human kind, she slithers down the mountain in company of a feisty companion, Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, who creates an endearing character, part of which is her edgy voice).
Having transformed themselves into human form, the two pose as mistress and servant, with Green Snake taking on the more daring and confrontational tasks. Along the way to civilization, they encounter Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider) who ferries them across the lake and loans White Snake his umbrella, a transaction during which their age-old, foreordained attraction manifests itself.
Though Xu Xian is a lowly chemist’s assistant, White Snake weds him and — again through magic — provides enough funds for a home and their own pharmacy, which is a raging success due to White Snake’s healing abilities. The evil abbot of the local Buddhist temple, Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), knows of White Snake’s true identity and sets out to ruin her marriage, success and happiness. She must go on a perilous journey to find the one remedy that will cure Xu Xian. As with all fables, there are many messages to the beholder; among them, we love the one we love, sometimes at our own peril; but in the grand scheme of things, love triumphs.
In the unfolding, Zimmerman employs music, dance and pageantry, all supplied by her dazzling and sincere company, two of whom are veterans of the Ashland and subsequent productions, and the artistry of Ostling and the original design team comprising costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer T. J. Gerkens, sound designer and composer Andre Pluess, and projection designer Shawn Sagedy. Many of the effects are as magical as the tale.
Initially, I found myself impatient with what seemed like overuse of parasols and puppets (snakes can do only so much); however, the story eventually overcame its means of telling, and the visual and aural, sans parasols and snakes, began to enthrall. The pageantry, which employs battle, lanterns and movement, is thrilling.
Ably done and beautifully integrated, the movement is a mix of ancient forms, most recognizably Noh and tai chi. Zimmerman’s text, based on numerous sources that came down through written and oral traditions, strives for poetry throughout; however, the final 10 minutes — a simple statement about love and loss delivered by the company — makes up for whatever impatience might have been engendered prior to this truly poetic moment.
— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.