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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The White Snake

We'll go down in disguise; you as my lady, and I as your maid. What do you say? Just for one day! — Green Snake
Well, perhaps there is no harm. — White Snake

The White Snake
(l-r) Tanya Thai McBride and Amy Kim Waschke (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
It is as redundant as it is an understatement to call Mary Zimmerman's theatrical compositions magical and mystical. They certainly appeal to those, including myself, who are willing to enter into their dreamily conceived esthetic and to unconditionally accept the worlds that she creates. Like it or not, they have their own but very specific definitions of naturalism and normalcy.

Having slithered gainfully about for a year during its evolution (with earlier productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Rep.), The White Snake is now at the McCarter Theater Center. Derived from an ancient Chinese fable in which humans and demons co-exist, consort and contrive to find happiness, Zimmerman's creation is not only great fun but also a theatrical treasure to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Even as McCarter audiences recall such memorable Zimmerman's forays into myths, fairy tales, fables and legends, as The Odyssey (2000), The Secret in the Wings (2005), and Argonautika (2008), they are also undoubtedly aware of her fantastical 2002 Tony Award-winning homage to Ovid Metamorphoses. As evidenced by this ravishing production written and directed by Zimmerman, The White Snake is likely to be placed high on the list of favorites, as it is already on mine.

Zimmerman has acknowledged taking what has appealed most to her from the various versions of The White Snake, a legend that has presumably evolved over centuries beginning in 981 CE. The most popularly and prominently known version is Feng Menglong's novella, Madame White Forever Confined Under Thunder Peak Pagoda written in 1624. As a moral fable cum fairy tale, it is as famous in China as is Cinderella in the Western world.

As I have previously been transfixed by all of Zimmerman's imaginative and sometimes fearsome flights of fancy, let me just submit that her charming adaptation takes a wonderfully light-hearted approach to a fable that comes wrapped in philosophical conjecture, misguided religiosity and existential inquiries. If they are essential and inherent elements in the various versions, be assured that it has acquired a witty and often comical text as well as a company of talented performers able to make every minute a pleasure.

This is also a visually stunning production in which a steady breeze of whimsically deployed and artfully designed fabrics, textures and objects arrest the eye even as our ears prick up to the clever lines that keep us amused and laughing. Although the embroidery plays an essential role (as they always do in a Zimmerman dreamscape), we are quickly involved in the complex and delightfully convoluted story, the plight of its endearing characters.

The story concerns the adventures of two snakes who feel that it is time to descend into the world of mortals after spending centuries studying, meditating and mastering the art of transformation, i.e. shape-shifting in their spiritual mountain retreat. The White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) is beautiful and determined. Her friend and companion The Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride) is eager and impetuous and remains a faithful accomplice to The White Snake. Together they puts into motion a plan for White Snake to seduce and marry Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schnieder), the handsome young man she has fallen in love with at first sight.

Flattered by the attentions of The White Snake, Xu responds and their future looks bright. With her amazing ability to cure people of their ills, they open a pharmacy. Yes, it's funny. But life for them gets problematic when an evil and demagogic Abbott (Matt De Caro) with the powers of a sorcerer figures out the deception and conspires to ruin the lives of the lovers by telling Xu of his wife's true nature.

Along with her talent as a writer/adaptor and director, Zimmerman is also renowned for her spectacular minimalism to create stage pictures that are hauntingly beautiful. This is accomplished with the concerted efforts of her design team. One cannot look at Daniel Ostling's cunningly plain and tilted settings as enhanced by Shawn Sagady's delicately imprinted projections without feeling that they should be framed for posterity. Even as you take in the splendor of Mara Blumenfeld's exquisite Chinese costumes as bathed in T.J. Gerckens's atmospheric lighting, you also see how carefully they are an integral component of Zimmerman's spectacularly minimalist world. If I may add one caveat, it is that the play right now has a number of endings when one would suffice.

The fantastical story, essentially a parable with Buddhist underpinnings, is, however, augmented with many lovely visuals. These include colorful parasols, colored lanterns, cascading ribbons as rain, and a huge billowing silk sheet that becomes a river that will serve in an earth-shaking war between the opposing spirits of the air and the sea. A great white heron with its spreading wings and a Stag Spirit are impressive guardians of a secret grove, but just as awesome is the fleet of dragon boats that come floating by during a festival. This gives an opportunity for the play's three musicians to hit their stride. Original songs, music and sound composed by Andre Puess add a stirring exotic flavor throughout to this memorable story that is as much about the transformative power of love as it is about the transformative potential of theater in the hands of an artist. .

This production is scheduled to move to the Goodman Theater in Chicago following the engagement at McCarter..

The White Snake
Written and Directed by Mary Zimmerman.

Cast: White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), Gaun Yin and others (Kristin Villanueva), Tanya Thai McBride), Jon Norman Schneider (Xu Xian), Vin Kridakorn (Boatman and others), Lisa Tejero (Sister and others), Wai Yim (Brother-in-law and others), Matt DeCaro (Fa Hai and others), Emily Sophia Knapp (Crane and others), Gary Wingert (Canopus and others), Eliza Shin (Acolyte and others), Musicians: Tessa Brinckman (flutes), Ronnie Malley (Strings/Percussion), Michal Palzewicz (cello).
Set Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design: Mara Blumenfeld
Lighting Design: T.J. Gerckens
Original Music and Sound Design: Andre Pluses Projection Design: Shawn Sagady
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission
Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ.
Tickets: $20 - $76
Performances: Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2 pm.
From 10/15/13 Opened 10/18/13 Ends 11/03/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/18/13
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