Monday, December 3, 2012

White Magic: "The White Snake" at Berkeley Rep

Mary Zimmerman has to have one of the most passionately devoted fanbases in the American theater. At least, in the circles I move in, we've been anticipating her newest play The White Snake for over a year, ever since the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it for their 2012 season. There were hastily planned road trips to Ashland to see The White Snake ASAP; there was much rejoicing when Berkeley Rep announced The White Snake as their 2012 holiday show; there was me deciding to become a Berkeley Rep subscriber for fear that the show would sell out otherwise; there were my non-"theater geek" friends getting just as excited about the show as I was. Finally, after all these months of anticipating, I saw the show at the end of Thanksgiving weekend. It was worth the wait!

The White Snake is a 100-minute adaptation of a Chinese folktale about a learned snake who takes human form, marries a mortal, becomes a loyal wife and respected citizen, but arouses the suspicions of a fanatical Buddhist monk. This story is very popular in China and, although it is not so well-known in the West, it echoes other folktales about animal-women who marry mortal men, like John Keats' "Lamia" or the Japanese folktale of the Crane Wife.

Zimmerman's adaptation features a multi-ethnic cast (most of whom did the show in Ashland), Chinese-inspired music, beautifully crafted costumes and props, and her trademark innovation in staging and imagery. For instance, at the beginning of the show, the snake characters are represented by some completely adorable puppets -- snake-phobics have nothing to fear from this show -- as well as by having the ensemble, carrying painted umbrellas, form one big "snake."

In its final moments, the play does that thing that every Zimmerman show seems to do: it reaches for transcendence, for a moment of painful beauty, and achieves it. As all good folklore-based theater must, it also resonates in ways that go beyond mere narrative. The protagonist's struggle whether to tell her husband that she is really a snake in disguise echoes the fear that we all have when starting a new relationship: will my partner accept me once he knows who I really am, deep down? Or will I frighten him away?

The White Snake is a kickass heroine: a scholar, magician and herbalist who goes on a quest to save her husband's life and engages in an epic battle with the monk -- and does it all while pregnant. She also has a sidekick, her stubborn, outspoken, and fiercely devoted friend the Green Snake, who takes human form as servant "Greenie." Indeed, The White Snake might be an excellent show for getting girls interested in theater. They'll initially be attracted to the romance and magic of the folktale, and along the way they'll hear a story of strong female characters told by a beloved female writer-director. Take your daughters/nieces/pre-teen friends! (When I saw the show on Sunday the 25th, the audience was mostly full of Berkeley retirees. I wish there'd been more young people and children there!)

Unlike the other Zimmerman works that I'm familiar with, The Arabian Nights (which I saw in Berkeley in 2009) and Metamorphoses (which I've read), The White Snake tells just one story, rather than a collection of them. Yes, it's a story with several twists and turns -- like a snake! -- but there were a few moments where the pace seemed to slacken or my interest flagged, which is something that I never felt in The Arabian Nights. For this reason, and also because my first encounter with the theatrical magic of Mary Zimmerman will forever have a place in my heart, I probably would rank The Arabian Nights slightly higher than the new show. Nonetheless, The White Snake is a beautiful piece of theater that will surely expand the Zimmerman fanbase even more.

The White Snake plays at Berkeley Rep until December 30. Top photo by Alessandra Mello. Bottom photo by Jenny Graham. Featuring Amy Kim Waschke as White Snake and Tanya Thai McBride as Green Snake.

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