Performance Sorceress Mary Zimmerman Spins 'The White Snake'

The specter of a snake as symbol of sorcery, temptation, and duality is ubiquitous. We've heard about Eve's encounter, but less familiar to Westerners is the legend of the white snake. The legend can be traced back to ancient China where it continued in the oral tradition before being written down sometime during the Ming Dynasty. The fable of the white snake itself has been retold as folktales, anime films, operas and even, last year, as the basis for a Chinese 3D action movie.

In its newest incarnation, The White Snake is a stunningly-staged play recently opened at Berkeley Rep. As the play's adaptor and director, Mary Zimmerman's immense talents are in full bloom in this world premiere production about a supernatural snake who transforms herself into a woman to join the mortals on Earth and seduce a trusting man.

Like the story's shape-shifting snake enchantress, Zimmerman uses her beguiling magic to bridge two worlds; a world that speaks to a contemporary audience and a more mysterious and exotic land.


Photo: Allesandra Mello

Zimmerman has made a career of revamping classics, reinventing ancient myths and fables in surprising ways to remind us of their relevance. This time, Zimmerman's take even has political undertones. This adaptation reveals that the practices of religious hypocrisy and moral outrage which are alive and well in our churches and houses of Congress, are in fact, old as antiquity.

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Amy Kim Waschke plays the White Snake, a spirit who, in this version, deceives her husband out of love instead of evil intent. Tanya Thai McBride plays the Green Snake, the comic sidekick, who has much the same role as the crafty servant stock character in the tradition of Commedia dell'Arte.

Christopher Livingston plays Xu Xian, the naïve and trusting husband of Madame White Snake, who acknowledges that people do not believe what they see, they see what they believe. For the most part, the play's performances are stylized and the characters are more mythic than down-to-earth. But Livingston's performance is vaguely out of place -- his affect and delivery are too casual. Jack Willis plays the villainous monk, bent on restoring the natural order, a moral command that forbids a mortal from marrying an immortal. The theme of piety in the face of love and marriage equality may resonate with audiences.


Photo: Allesandra Mello

Zimmerman's previous works, including the terrific Metamorphosis, Argonautika and The Arabian Nights, are modernized takes on classics sprinkled with contemporary wit. The White Snake doesn't have the same visual wit as its precursors. The play is something to be admired, but not adored.

It is the visual design that makes The White Snake an extraordinary theatrical achievement. While the production is strikingly beautiful, the play itself is less engaging. It is more a performance-as-art than a piece of dramatic material.

Up in the realm of the immortals, the White Snake is initially seen as a puppet. First she is a silky fabric snake whose slithery motions are maneuvered by a woman moving two attached rods. Later, a choreographed line of women hold white paper umbrellas angled to become snake scales coiled in unison. Shimmering fabric billows create skies, clouds, and waves. Unfurled ribbons of paper create a rainstorm. The set -- and all the movement on the set creates a gorgeous impressionistic tableau.


Photo: Jenny Graham

Zimmerman's artistry here has much in common with the avant-garde theatrical wonder of Julie Taymor's The Lion King, which opened last week at the Orpheum Theater. Fifteen years after the Broadway opening of The Lion King, the stage musical continues to inspire awe -- more than can be said for the new 3D version of the movie. Both Taymor and Zimmerman are visionaries who put digital realism to shame.

Just as Taymor used the colors and fabrics of Africa to create an organic mise en scène, Zimmerman furnishes The White Snake with the sights and sounds of China. This includes paper umbrellas, bamboo accents, red blossoms, a minimalist and elegant amalgam of unplugged puppets, gentle, evocative projections and lighting (Shawn Sagady and T.J. Gerckens) and glorious costumes (Mara Blumenfeld). With Daniel Ostling's brilliant scenic design, the play is a radiant reminder of the magic of low-tech theater.

The White Snake runs through December 23, 2012 at Berkeley Rep Theater. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

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