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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Mary Zimmerman has another mesmerizing hit in the epic Chinese fable, “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

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.

Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of “The White Snake,” which features Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie, the green snake spirit who is the indefatigable sidekick to Kim Waschke’s White Snake spirit. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

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.

Honesty is essential for any love relationship to flourish. In Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” Christopher Livingston plays the naïve herbalist, Xu Xian (left), who is deceived by his wife, played by Amy Kim Waschke, who does not reveal her true nature to him. Photographer: Mary Zimmerman

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.

Jack Willis (left) is Fa Hai, the evil Buddhist monk and Christopher Livingston is Xu Xian, the naïve herbalist and bridegroom in Mary Zimmerman’s production of “The White Snake,” at Berkeley Rep through December 23, 2012. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com

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.

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November 21, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “In Paris”—Mikhail Baryshnikov is smoldering as a downtrodden general in a May-December romance, at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Last Wednesday’s opening night performance of In Paris at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre began an uncharacteristic 17 minutes late.  No one was more keenly aware of this than Mikhail Baryshnikov, who stood waiting quietly in darkness at the back of the stage for the action to begin. And when it did begin, none of us were exactly sure what was happening because we had been thrown a kilter by the time…but a slight woman in a hat appeared in the front rows, where the audience was seated, and she made her way to the left wall of the theatre and began to move a blown-up postcard through the tightly seated audience, bumping a few people in the process. She foisted it up onto to the stage where she then dragged and rotated it towards a stationary Baryshnikov, who was dressed in a trench coat, staring downwards. The black and white image was an old photo of Notre Dame and, as tentative and drawn out as the gesture was, we had all just made the symbolic journey to Paris.  That’s just one of the vehicles that Russian director Dmitry Krymov uses to engage his audiences in this very poetic staging of Baryshnikov’s new show which tells its story through music, song, video projections, props that are suggestive of moving collage or puzzle pieces, dramatic lighting by Damir Ismagilov, and a palette of black, white and gray hues in Maria Tregubova’s set and costume design.

Director Dmitry Krymov’s “In Paris” opens with Anna Sinyakina dramatically dragging a huge postcard of the Notre Dame onto the stage of Berkeley’s Rep’s Roda Theatre and plopping it down it by Mikhail Baryshnikov (right). Photo: Maria Baranova

The story itself is set in Paris in the 1930’s and has been adapted from a short story written in 1940 by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933, who himself lived in exile in Paris and never returned to Russia.  Baryshnikov is Nikolai Platonitch, a retired general of White Russian army who was thrown out of Russia by the Bolshevik army, is living in Paris, and by chance meets a beautiful young Russian émigré, Olga, a waitress, played by the compelling young Russian actress Anna Sinyakina.  The two lonely souls fall in love but, alas, their tender journey is bittersweet.  Rounding out the ensemble are actors from Russia and Finland, members of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, who don’t have defined roles but serve as a chorus, accompanying the drama at the moment by moving props and singing.

Legendary performer Mikhail Baryshnikov is a retired general of the White Russian army living in exile Paris who is in a May-December romance with Anna Sinyakina in “In Paris,” at Berkeley Rep through May 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

Baryshnikov, now 64, is considered one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century but he has also enjoyed an extensive acting career.  He made his first film debut in the 1977 film The Turning Point, and was last seen on Sex and the City, playing the man dumped by Carrie Bradshaw. His most recent theatrical performance was in Beckett Shorts, a collection off four short Beckett plays, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis for Samuel Beckett’s centenary in 2007.  In In Paris, he first appears in shadows, not moving much at all, yet gesturing the girl with an inner movement.  Instead of physically gliding towards her like he did so dramatically in numerous ballets, he practices a form of expression that relies on calling forth his bearing as a general who has shed his uniform but still wears it invisibly.  The girl responds.

Dmitry Krymov, the influential Russian artist, director, and set designer has given Bunin’s story new resonance. His small experimental Moscow theater company, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the past 7 years for its repertoire of staged works called “painters theatre” with a very dominant and engaging visual aesthetic. In the first few minutes of In Paris, the word “loneliness” is projected across the stage in several languages, evoking a connection to the world’s displaced peoples and the collective loneliness that underpins Bunin’s story. Video projections of texts—dialogue translations and poetry—are projected creatively across the stage and actors throughout, making a dynamic visual impression.

Mikhail Baryshnikov (right) and Anna Sinyakina perform at Berkeley Rep in a special presentation of “In Paris,” through May, 13, 2012. Photo: Maria Baranova

The drama is organized around a circle which symbolically reinforces the characters’ situations in a fairly typical Russian love story.  The aged Baryshnikov/Nikolai Platonitch has lived his life and he’s not leaving his destiny.  Sinyakina/Olga is a simple soul who has been endowed with beauty.  She has a small world and doesn’t dream outside of it.  She has a moment with him and then it ends and that’s it.  Her crest comes in a brief scene of preparation and anticipation, as she dresses for her first date with Platonitch.  She stands before the audience and does something akin to Salome’s dance of the seven veils with her dress, a magnificently stretchy and utilitarian creation which she transforms into dozens of fashion statements before settling on the right one. Other props evoke a subtly humorous association with handicrafts—there’s the tilted table at the restaurant, that serves as foil for a delightful small talk about soup, and later a car—a large cut-out—that transports them on their first date.

There are relatively few spoken words but hearing Baryshnikov and Sinyakina communicate tenderly in their native Russian is soothing, lyrical—especially their precious small talk about soup.

Baryshnikov sustains our interest keenly throughout as a presence not dependent on movement at all—it isn’t until the end that he dances briefly.  He collapses and then there’s a dream sequence, a kind of resurrection, where he’s a matador dominating a bull against the musical backdrop of Bizet’s Carmen.  His dance is elegant, refined, brief— the perfect ending to this dynamic collage that paints a rich portrait of two lost souls and the illusive nature of love.

It’s been a very strong season for Berkeley Rep which prepped us for this melancholy Russian story with Chekov’s Three Sisters  in April 2011, a Russian classic steeped in loss whose characters’ sufferings are not too distant from those of In Paris.

Run time is 80 minutes with no intermission

Performed in Russian and French with English subtitles

Adapted from the short story by Ivan Bunin; Direction and adaptation by Dmitry Krymov; Set and costume design by Maria Tregubova; Music by Dmitry Volkov

Performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Anna Sinyakina, Maxim Maminov, Maria Gulik, Dmitry Volkov, and Polina Butko with Ossi Makkonen and Lasse Lindberg

Featuring the work of Damir Ismagilov (lighting designer), Andrey Shchukin (movement coach), Alexei Ratmansky (choreographer), and Tei Blow (audio and video designer)

A production of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, and the AG Foundation in association with the Korjaamo Culture Factory of Helsinki, Finland.

Free tastings:  Join Berkeley Rep for complimentary pre-performance tastings! Sample wine, beer, chocolate, champagne, vodka, organic produce or other delights before select Friday 8pm, Saturday 8pm and Sunday 7pm performances. New tasting events are being added all the time, so be sure to check back often!

  • Friday, May      4: Peterson Winery / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 5: Calstar Cellars / 7pm
  • Friday, May      11: Cater Too / 7pm
  • Saturday,      May 12: Via Pacifica Selections/ 7pm

Details: In Paris runs for three weeks only and ends May 13, 2012.  The Berkeley Repertory Theatre (Roda Theatre) is located at 2015 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are $22.50 -$125, with discounts for students and seniors and half-price to anyone under the age of 30.  For tickets and info:  http://www.berkeleyrep.org  or phone 510.647.2949

May 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment