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The White Snake — McCarter Theatre

WhiteSnakeInside300In “The White Snake,” director Mary Zimmerman continues her gift for finding sweetness and drama in the myths and folklore of cultures long enough established to provide her plenty of material.

     “The White Snake” also continues Zimmerman’s penchant for using a “Story Theatre” technique in presenting her tale while injecting a high degree of theatricality with lavish use of traditional gesture, fabric, music, and in “The White Snake’s” case, puppetry, of a good and delightful kind.

      Zimmerman’s efforts, as seen at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, add up to a light and charming production that attains the power to move the audience and elicit strong emotions. I found myself caring very much for the title character and developing a real hatred for the more conventional character who would thwart her happiness in, of course, the name of doing good.

       “The White Snake” is based on a famous Chinese legend about a serpent who lived in the high mountains of China and admired the freedom of humans who could walk on their feet and interact without necessarily scaring one another. The folktale grants the snake long life, and she spends several centuries studying the Tao and using what she learns to gain amazing powers, including one by which she can transform herself into a beautiful woman.

        Chinese lore offers many variations of the White Snake story, most of them involving the snake’s burial under an ancient pagoda,  a prison of sorts that will keep her from communing with humanity until the pagoda is destroyed and the snake, in the form of a woman, engenders the true love of a human man. Zimmerman draws on several of the threads in crafting the story for her script. She even has a narrator acknowledge one version of the tale while announcing Zimmerman is about to take the piece in a different direction.

      Everything the director chooses works, even a series of sequences in which she breaks forward action to introduce a convention of Chinese theater. At first, “The White Snake” uncoils amiably in the manner of a children’s story. The narrative is very direct, the actors’ readings simple and without much vocal embellishment, and the presentation elemental and straightforward to the point of being childlike. As the play continues, it establishes depth because we take a real and affectionate liking to the three central characters. We want their success. We want their happiness. We want the fantasy in front of us to take genuine realistic root.

       Being a story handed down through generations, and being a play, the course of neither true love nor the white snake’s disguise as a young human woman are permitted to go smoothly. A measure of how sincerely the snake, her companion, also a snake, and her human husband have affected us is how much we care for their safety or survival when danger or some impediment to unmitigated bliss occurs. The person who threatens the most disruption in the snake’s peaceful life, a Buddhist  lama of high rank, causes you to despise him even though his argument about a snake and a human mating has logic, and he purports to meddle in the snake’s affairs for the moral, and biological, benefit  of society.

      The white snake ingratiates her way into the audience’s affection as deftly as she wins her husband’s heart and the respect of the people in the town where she lives. The snake’s beloved, Xu Xian, is a pharmacist’s assistant when she meets him. She finds a way for him to start his own shop at which she earns a reputation as an effective healer.

      All is done so steadily and with such a sure hand, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the simple charm and theatrical inventiveness  of Zimmerman’s production moves from a pleasant diversion to an engrossing tale that makes you ardently root for and against characters and admire the love the snake and Xu Xian feel for each other.  No doubt the acting of Amy Kim Waschke as the white snake, Jon Norman Schneider as Xu Xian, and Tanya Thai McBride as the green snake inspires this caring interest in their characters. Each, in his or her turn, has a subtle ways of establishing an affinity with the audience. Schneider can make you laugh with naïve expressions of joy or incredulity and turn you sad when Xu Xian encounters obstacles and confusion he doesn’t quite understand. McBride is the brashest and rashest of the trio and wins you with both her energy and the way she expresses the unfailing certainty of a sidekick who knows the person she serves has gone too far…again. Waschke is the image of poised determination, the self-assured woman who may be a snake, and know it, but doesn’t want to hear about it or have the ideal human existence she fashioned encroached upon by either reality or outside forces.

      Waschke and McBride are conspirators in the beginning. Holding satiny, coily white and green snake puppets before them, and maneuvering them in ways that express the tone of what each is saying, they talk about how daring it would be to slither down their mountain in human form to spend one day, just one, experiencing the world as humans do.

        Arriving in a bustling town, the snakes, who take names that translate to Madame White, a woman of station and substance, and Greenie, her handmaiden, remind one of “Hello Dolly’s” Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay setting out for an adventure in Manhattan. Their conversation reinforces the Irene-Minnie relationship as Madame White talks about the daring things she wants to do and her intention to carry them through while Greenie tries to hold her perspective and ground her with practical matters and ideas of respectable reality.

      Given they’ve allowed themselves a single day of liberty, the pair want to see all of the famous landmarks of the town, but their visit looks as if it might be spoiled by rain. Just as Madame White is saying a few drops won’t hurt them, a young man comes up and offers to keep them dry under his umbrella, even at the expense of getting wet himself. Madame White falls in love, and that sets Zimmerman’s story going full tilt. Waschke, Schneider, and McBride keep the story flowing in ways that involve and attract. They are supported by a talented cast, including Matt DeCaro as the intervening lama, Vin Kridakorn as a kindly guard, and Wai Yim, who impresses in a number small parts, both when portraying a character or serving as a narrator. DeCaro uses the subtleties and devices of a crafty leader to create a figure who will not brook trifling with his purpose. He is ironically the conscience and villain of the piece, and DeCaro plays the lama in a way that clearly lets you see him as both at once.

      Mary Zimmerman adores the theatrical, and her design team, particularly Mara Blumenfeld on costumes and Daniel Ostling on sets, helps her create her stage magic brilliantly.

      Blumenfeld has the challenge of having to show Madame White and Greenie revealing themselves as snakes while they maintain their poise as women. She meets it by having tails show from the ladies’ long dresses in scenes in which the women are compromised or motivated to some thought that is more reptilian than human. The construction and management of the costumes, and Blumenfeld and Zimmerman’s conception of them, make these scenes special in their playfulness and in the way they make you worry about whether the tails will be noticed and Madame White and Greenie caught in their act. It is a tribute to how much you want the snakes to succeed in their charade that you instinctively think “oh no” at the quickest instance of the tails showing. Blumenfeld’s traditional Chinese dresses, particularly for the White Snake and Guan Yin, a goddess, are lovely. Her fanciful costumes, for a crane and other creatures, are evocative and amusing.

       Ostling is as clever with a chest of drawers that rises to various levels from a trap in the McCarter stage. The same piece can serve as a low writing desk in one scene, a large apothecary’s cabinet in another, and a bed chamber in a third. The piece is lovely and functional at once. For rain, Ostling and Zimmerman have pale blue pieces of fabric fall in straight vertical lines on the stage. Fabric will have several uses, and you enjoy watching the designer’s versatility with it..

      Music is one of the main storytellers in Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake.” Andre Pluess created a score than can be witty or moody in turn, always establishing the right note to underscore what is occurring on stage. His compositions are beautifully played by Tessa Brickman, Ronnie Malley, and Michal Palzewicz.

       The shift from being an elaborately stylized folktale to becoming a story that made one delight in and fear for the characters vaulted “The White Snake” from a mild, unusual entertainment to one that was satisfying artistically and emotionally. Zimmerman and McCarter have a long, rewarding relationship. May it continue.

       “The White Snake” runs through Sunday, November 3, at the McCarter Theatre, University Place and College Avenue, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $76 to $20 and can be ordered by calling 609-258-ARTS (609-258-2787) or going online to www.mccarter.org.

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2013 by in Theater Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , .

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