Snakes and Lovers

19. November, 2012 Theater No comments

It’s interesting that The White Snake comes to Berkeley Rep hot on the heels of this summer’s big stink over the casting of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse, the latest musical from the Spring Awakening team of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story set in ancient China, the latter show was criticized for having hardly any Asians in the cast, with the emperor of China played by a white guy. Like that show, writer/director Mary Zimmerman’s latest is set in ancient China and—like most of her productions—features a multiethnic cast, albeit one with more Asian actors than the La Jolla show, especially in the lead roles.

Amy Kim Waschke in The White Snake. Photo courtesy of

Zimmerman has brought many shows to Berkeley Rep in the past—Journey to the West, Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, The Secret in the Wings, Argonautika, and The Arabian Nights—all of them visually sumptuous, ensemble-based works, almost all based on myth and folklore. This one’s unusual mostly in that for once it didn’t start off in her home base of Chicago before coming here. This world premiere production debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in February, playing there all the way into July, and comes here with just one addition to the cast: San Francisco Mime Troupe member Keiko Shimosato Carreiro.

The White Snake is based on an actual Chinese tale that has inspired many, many adaptations, such as the marvelous1993 Tsui Hark film Green Snake with Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong, and a 3-D movie starring Jet Li just last year called The Sorcerer and the White Snake. The upshot is that a powerful snake spirit, the White Snake or Lady Bai, disguises herself as a human woman and falls in love with Xu Xian, a young  pharmacist’s assistant. Her constant companion and servant traveling with her is the more impetuous Green Snake, or Greenie, similarly disguised as human. Unsuspecting of her hidden nature, Xu Xian returns her love and marries her, and they start their own medicine shop using her amazing remedies. But a meddling monk, Fa Hei, knows what she is and does everything in his power to expose her and expel her.

Fa Hai’s always basically the bad guy in this particular story, but Zimmerman plays a lot with the fable as an analogy for marriage equality. So she makes the monk a fiery fundamentalist mantra-banger, played with crafty wiles and imperious contempt by American Conservatory Theater mainstay Jack Willis. “No one who is truly happy in his own life cares a bean about the morals of others,” harrumphs an indignant Greenie.

Willis is very funny as this powerful abbot, and in fact there’s a lot of wry humor throughout. Tanya Thai McBride’s impishness and coarse manners as Greenie are a perfect foil for Amy Kim Waschke’s refined Lady Bai. Both formidably powerful and delicate, Waschke’s White Snake is also often amusing, such as when she’s trying to convince her husband that nothing’s amiss when something obviously is. Christopher Livingston gives his endearingly earnest Xu Xian a priceless gullibility and childlike perplexity. He can’t figure out how he managed to get this lucky but he knows better than to question it too much.

The ensemble takes turns narrating the story—or rather, some of them do. Zimmerman definitely makes more use of some ensemble members than others; some play many roles while others hang around in the background playing no one in particular. Sometimes they break into song, which is seldom good news—not because there’s anything wrong with their voices, but the songs are definitely a weak link. Sadly, the show has nothing to do with the band Whitesnake. Not that I actually like that band at all, but their songs might be an improvement over the ramshackle, vaguely Chinese-inspired songs by sound designer Andre Pluess and played by a three-piece band of Caucasians in Chinese scholars’ robes.

There aren’t just competing narrators but competing narratives. There are many versions of this legend, as with many legends, and Zimmerman’s take reflects that at ever turn. One of the most commonly heard phrases in the storytelling is “Some say…” From time to time the story forks, like the tongue of the snake, but eventually it always picks one path or another rather than branching off into countless Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style tendrils. A couple of times one of the storytellers frames a scene with a lesson in the rules of Chinese drama as the performances because much more stylized to illustrate.

Amy Kim Waschke and Emily Sophia Knapp in The White Snake. Photo by Jenny Graham.

As ever, Zimmerman’s fanciful stagecraft and lush sense of design really makes the story spring to life. Sometimes the snake is a wriggling puppet, sometimes a long line of performers wielding white parasols, sometimes a single woman with a lone pulsating umbrella as the serpent’s head. Once they’re in fully human form, White Snake and Greenie sometime move in serpentine motions, and a tail sometimes trails out the back of their robes. Rainfall is indicated by a guy slowly trickling rice into a metal pot while blue streamers hang down all over the stage.

Emily Sophia Knapp embodies Doubt with long talons that she uses to clutch at Xu Xian; he’s literally clawed by doubts. Later on, when the White Snake has to go on a quest, Knapp plays a cruel crane in a marvelous costume by Mara Blumenfeld, while Richard Howard towers above as an immortal on stilts.

With bamboo walls and an elegant medicine chest that rises out of the ground, Daniel Ostling’s set is nicely accentuated by projected backgrounds by Shawn Sagady. The projected line-drawing scenery becomes filled in gradually, as if in brushstrokes from a exceedingly fast artist.

Even if the show’s not quite as enthralling as some of the director’s past hits at the Rep, even a minor Zimmerman piece is still leagues above a lot of what’s out there. The story is bittersweet and touching, filled with magic and a bite-size dollop of philosophy. It’s a tale that can be told any number of times in any number of ways, and this one is as good as any and better than most.

The White Snake
Through December 30
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #112 of 2012, attended November 14.

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