The White Snake
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Goodman Theatre. Adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman. With ensemble cast. 1hr 40mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Mary Zimmerman’s clever, often charming rendering of a tale from ancient folklore makes its way to the Goodman after stagings in Oregon, California and New Jersey. In it, the writer-director employs some of her signature design and physicality ways; the basic shape of Daniel Ostling’s set design seems strikingly similar to his work on Zimmerman’s 2010 Candide, though it holds different surprises, and shimmery fabric flows early and often. But many of these old tricks feel new again in the service of this story, which invokes some very old religious conflicts to effectively expose the futility of those that still plague us.
White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), a supernatural serpent and upstanding scholar of Taoism, is convinced by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride) to take an excursion in disguise to the world of mortals. There, White Snake is suddenly taken with a young man named Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider)—who, various cast members tell us in shared narration, may have rescued the snake from a perilous fate in a previous life, thus tying the two souls together for many reincarnations to come. But then that’s only one version of the story, which the narrators remind us has many “forks” in its tellings.
Regardless, White Snake resolves to marry the man and remain in the mortal realm, though it requires some effort to conceal her true form for the long term. With “Greenie” staying on as White Snake’s servant, the trio forms a happy family, with a new addition soon on the way; White Snake also uses her magic to boost her husband’s services as a healer of the ailing.
The threat to this blissful, loving and all-around benevolent arrangement comes from the purported holy man Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), who our narrators describe as possessed of “a villainous heart” in spite of his respected standing. Fa Hai intuits that Xu Xian’s generous and gifted new spouse is the serpent gone missing from the spirit world.
Fa Hai’s marking White Snake as a “demon” and their marriage “unnatural” is possibly rooted, as a program note by her fellow Goodman artistic associate Steve Scott suggests, in Zimmerman’s peg to a 7th-century conflict about whether China’s state religion would be Taoism or Buddhism. “This is Buddha’s country!” DeCaro declares, vowing with all the zeal of a Disney villain to exorcise White Snake, even though it’s clear he has no vested interest in breaking up the happy union.
Here, Zimmerman almost veers from allegory into speechifying in tying her parable to more recent societal objections to marriage between those of different religions, different races or the same gender. “No one in who is truly happy in this life cares a bean about the morals of others,” Green Snake growls at Fa Hai; while I won’t argue with the sentiment, the rhetoric feels a tad forced. And a recurring gag in which a cast member reads from a book titled “Secrets of the Chinese Drama” as commentary on ceremonial elements of staging similarly comes across, fairly or not, as a hedge against charges of appropriating Asian culture in the wake of last summer’s dust-ups over Zimmerman’s Jungle Book.
Still, Zimmerman’s White Snake is ultimately both moving and engaging in its inventive but not overwhelming visual and conceptual devices—see the embodiment of doubt as a creature with long, clickety-clackety claws clipping at our outsides, or a stunningly realized depiction of a sudden rainstorm that steers entirely clear of plumbing. It’s enough to win you over well in time for the unexpectedly melancholy turn at the tale’s end.