Mary Zimmerman has another mesmerizing hit in the epic Chinese fable, “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012
Told with puppets that come to life and magical special effects, Tony-award winning director Mary Zimmerman’s stirring adaptation of the ancient Chinese fairy tale, The White Snake, which has its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a must-see holiday treat. Suddenly, we’re all children again and we’ve been taken into a world of wonder where a glorious legend, as old as time and yet timeless, unfolds on stage before us. The epic fable is about a thousand-year-old white snake spirit who is so curious about the human world that she transforms herself into a human. She comes down from her contemplative life on a mountaintop with a friendly green snake who has also transformed herself into a woman and who serves as her friend and confidant. The White Snake finds true love with a man who has no reason to suspect she is not human. A meddling monk jeopardizes everything when he tries to break them up in order to enforce an age-old law declaring love relationships between spirits and humans an inappropriate violation of nature’s law. Of course, when the White Snake hides her true nature from her true love, there are bound to be repercussions.
This co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ran in Ashland through July 2012 and is the seventh Mary Zimmerman creation to grace the stage of Berkeley Rep. Like her other winners Argonautika (2008), The Arabian Nights (2008, 2010), it draws on a classic tale that has been re-shaped by her own distinctive vision to create a subtle exploration of love, deception, loss and survival.
Zimmerman’s plays are renowned for their stunning visual impact. Projection designer Shawn Sagady and set designer Daniel Ostling have collaborated again to employ the latest in video projection techniques mixed with simple touches such as streams of silken fabric that drop elegantly from the sky to represent rain and the artistry of hand-operated paper snake puppets. Particularly enchanting is the way the bamboo walls come alive when lines of ink projected on the walls seem to transform into lovely Chinese screens or when the floor becomes a river undulating with color. A wonderful set of wooden cabinets which opens to reveal a lovely bed is on stage for much of the production. When combined with T.J. Gerckens’ gorgeous lighting, it all comes together and builds into a mesmerizing visual tableau.
The visual magic is only half of the fun. The Chinese legend of the White Snake existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation, and was handed down from the Tang and Five Dynasties through the Ming and Qing Dynasties until it became a classical theme, its many versions inspiring Chinese operas, ballads, scrolls, novels, films and even TV series. (Click here for Berkeley’s Rep’s fascinating compilation of legend of the White Snake.) Zimmerman gives us a story that will delight a child but that has levels of meaning that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
Amy Kim Waschke, who plays the White Snake, has the remarkable ability to project empowerment with vulnerability and scattered-brained behavior, making for a very interesting and down-to-earth White Snake. Once she has transformed herself into a human, she begins to experience the fulfilling joy and pain of the human experience. She will do anything to preserve her marriage except reveal the truth of her snake nature to her husband.
The White Snake’s loyal gal-pal “Greenie” (Tanya Thai McBride ) is there for her and understands her and they have a fabulous on stage chemistry that resonates much more than that between Waschke and Christopher Livingston, who plays Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist that White Snake is smitten with. Tanya Thai McBride is a natural cut-up and it’s a real treat to watch her blossom in human form in the many humorous scenes that occur.
Jack Willis, revered for his longstanding role as the Ghost Jacob Marley in A.C.T.’s much-loved annual production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is much scarier here as the cunning Buddhist monk, Fa Hai, who feels he must, at all costs, break-up the happy bi-species relationship.
Composer/sound designer Andre J. Pluess’ enchanting original score is performed by Michal Palzewicz (cello), Tessa Brinckman (flutes), and Ronnie Malley (strings and percussion).
Creative Team: Adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman; Designed by Daniel Ostling (sets); Mara Blumenfeld (costumes); T.J. Gerckens (lighting); Andre Pluess (sound); and Shawn Sagady (projections). Music performed by Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley, and Michal Palzewicz
Cast: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Gina Daniels, Richard Howard, Cristofer Jean, Emily Sophia Knapp, Vin Kridakorn, Christopher Livingston, Tanya Thai McBride, Lisa Tejero, Amy Kim Waschke, and Jack Willis
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Details: The White Snake ends December 23, 2012. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Rhoda Theatre is located at 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday, with matinee performances on weekends and additional matiness at 2 PM on Thursdays 11/29 and 12/13. No performance Thanksgiving. Tickets: Tickets: $29-$99 call box office at 510-647-2949 or purchase online at www.berkeleyrep.org
Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.