The White Snake probably is not what you expect. It’s much more.
The new show at the Old Globe Theatre is not about snakes. And, though you may glance at the pictures shown here and think, “another ethnic metaphor, probably sweet and solemn,” that’s not it either. It’s set in some version of ancient China but that’s not really important.
Instead, this is a sturdy tale of conflict and affection between characters with strong appetites and convictions, who make mistakes, master problems, lose control, lapse into laughter, gain wisdom and transcend their ends. It’s a treasure of Chinese culture, which has been around for literally thousands of years because, when properly told, it’s entertaining, uplifting and generally nifty.
The Globe has turned over the telling to Mary Zimmerman, the author and director of this version, and a canny move that has proven to be. Ms. Zimmerman respects but doesn’t revere the material. She understands it intimately and displays a delightful ability to tweak and tuck a plot that accumulated garlands of variations over the centuries. Her version premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has been seen since in many theatres, usually with the same team of designers and many of the same performers, obviously a creation which needs little maintenance.
Now, blithely ignoring eons of social, literary, cultural, religious and popular ornamentation, I here present the plot of The White Snake:
Instead of sleeping her whole life through (“as many of us do”), this White Snake has studied her way toward enlightenment… for 1,700 years, until she can command the weather, travel on the clouds, defeat demons in battle and change her shape. Then, restless, she decides to enter the human world in the shape of a beautiful young maiden, served by her friend, Green Snake, a less-studious but more lively companion.
In the city, reveling in their human forms, the two meet Xu Xian, a handsome young pharmacist’s clerk, and White Snake falls in love. “Why delay?” is Green Snake’s response, as she waylays Xu and proposes a match. Soon, Xu is set up in business, White Snake is pregnant, Greenie is keeping house and life seems about perfect, until the Establishment descends. Fa Hai, a high-ranking monk in the Golden Mountain Temple, who must have bribed a lot of corrupt priests to get his job, is scandalized by this match of a human with a demon spirit. Before Xu sends him off, Fa warns of the young man’s terrible peril. Doubt is thus planted.
Soon comes a festival with lots of drinking that White Snake knows will test her ability to maintain her human form. She sends Green Snake into seclusion for a couple of days and toughs it out herself. But Xu insists she drink and, when she retires, he looks in and sees her, for the first time, in snake form. The shock kills him.
So White Snake must go to some very bad places and brave some formidable guardians to steal an antidote and, when Xu has been revived, she still must win back his faltering love. The evil Fa shows up again and again, Xu’s new maturity is tested, the baby comes but solves nothing and the story unravels. But Zimmerman is stalwart and, using solid stage and page skills, pulls it all together and even finds a final button: “Don’t be afraid. It is impossible to die alone.”
Most of this story is told in straightforward narrative fashion by one of the 11 actors who slide endlessly between the dozens of characters with never a note false to the universe of the production. The classic formality of the staging always allows for the need of clarity without missing the opportunity for fun. If the action occasionally freezes while a narrator explains techniques from “Secrets of the Chinese Drama,” do not think this is cute trickery. Just understand that it helps keep things loose and jolly.
The same is true of the splendid sets and props by Daniel Ostling, which seem to skim the treasures of Asian stagecraft to enhance the needs of comfortable show business. Rain is streamers of gray silk, a large snake is a coordinated row of actors spinning parasols, a cabinet large enough for interior scenes, raises soundlessly from the raked floor and then sinks without trace. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are the stuff of dreams, even the tails, and T.J. Gerckens’s lighting and the projections of Shawn Sagady are casual wizardry.
It’s not that Zimmerman doesn’t take chances with words and movement (those tails!) and occasionally stumble (“Your family,” thunders the evil monk, “is a nest of vipers!”). The amazing part is that she pulls together such an eclectic mix of ingredients and makes it work so well. The relationship between the two snake-women, for example, is as satisfactory as the two girls in As You Like It. The pompous priest comes courtesy of endless misapplied religion. Even the lack of perfection is comfortable.
Amy Kim Waschke as White Snake has reservoirs of craft as needed, gliding from feminine to reptilian as smoothly as the scenery, and Tonya Thai McBride pretty well defines “spunky pal” as Greenie. Jon Norman Schneider is a manly dreamer as Xu, stalwart without being distracting, while Matt DeCaro plays old Fa with menace off the shelf but far from silly. All these actors seem inspired, understandable in such an assignment.
Three musicians supply punctuation composed by Andre Pluess from the western traditional orchestra pit area, yet another calmly resourceful adaptation of w3hatever Ms. Zimmerman has needed to make this very palatable show work so well.
Continues on the Old Globe stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 26, 2015.