Combine an ancient Chinese fable with a MacArthur “genius” director and the result is an enchanting, eye-popping night of theater that seamlessly combines text with compelling performances, sumptuous costumes, live music, a touch of whimsy, and production values the likes of which you have never seen.
“The White Snake” tells the story of a pair of snake spirits who live high on a mountain. They study for a thousand years in search of enlightenment but grow restless and decide to search for a little fun. White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) has an idle curiosity about the mortals living in a village far below. The plucky Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride) is a reptile with a plan. The two transform, respectively, into a beautiful woman and her handmaiden. These sidekicks are as endearing as Hope and Crosby. The walkabout is intended to last until sundown, but those plans are jettisoned when paths cross with a poor but virtuous herbalist-in-training Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider) and romance strikes.
Deciding to stay human forever, White Snake uses magic to transform a hovel into a magnificent home. Green Snake doesn’t think twice about resorting to larceny to help her friend, stealing heavy sacks of money amassed by corrupt officials. White Snake convinces Xu Xian that both assets are an inheritance and the lovers wed.
Days turn into weeks that turn into blissful months as the couple grows a successful pharmacy practice while new life grows within White Snake. In truth, their customers’ health benefits more from White Snake’s magic than from her apothecary husband’s skills. Word of her powers reaches the ears of a Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), a deliciously sinister monk who makes it his mission to expose this demon and destroy the couple’s happiness. What follows are conflicts, broken promises, pitched battles, separations, and ultimately resolution in an achingly tender scene.
Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman gives us as much magic on stage as in the story. The curtain rises revealing a lengthy piece of white silk that momentarily hangs stretched across the stage before gliding weightless to the boards. Actors grasp the corners and, with a few expert flicks of the wrist and choreographed maneuvers, transform the fabric into billowing clouds, imposing mountains, and rippling water as called for by a narrator.
There is a luxurious feel to the sparse set (scenic designer Daniel Ostling) as near constant changes in lighting (by T.J. Gerckens) and projections (by Shawn Sagady) impart fluidity to the space. This dream-like effect extends to a backdrop upon which languid rivulets of inky wash slowly appear then suddenly coalesce into landscape imagery. This is not let’s-see-what-we-can-get-away-with stage trickery. Each has its place and precise pace within the story. Original music by Andre Pluess, performed by a small but lively orchestra, blends Eastern and Western melodies that carry the story aloft and along.
Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld has crafted robes and tunics of rich fabrics with sleeves that cascade like waterfalls to the floor. The floor-length garb allows the actors to glide across the stage as if levitating a few inches above it. In a crucial scene, White Snake seeks a rare flower needed to treat her stricken husband. To obtain it, she must get past a guardian crane whose wings possess more wooden slates than a picket fence and a headdress that makes the actor appear taller than a giraffe.
Did I mention the stick-manipulated snake puppets? I have got to get me one of these!