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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The White Snake at the Goodman

Or: “Believing is Seeing”

Where do I begin? The famous proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and so a review should begin with a single image, laid about the play's neck like a precious birthstone. But what if that play should have no neck, just looping coil on coil, shimmering like the clouds reflected in the west lake, the smallest of its scales a gem beyond measure? Where does one begin to tell the tale of the tale then? Mary Zimmerman, the great reader, has done it again: created an indescribable rendering of one of the worlds timeless classic, that is both ancient and modern simple and elaborate and poignant and side splitting all at once. This time she has taken one of China’s most popular tales: the original buddy film, the question about the nature of evil, and the simple prism through which we view a love supreme; the story of The White Snake.

Zimmerman’s company showcases and binds up the many beginnings middles and ends of The White Snake but the essentials are always the same: White Snake (Stephenie Soohyun Park, filling in for Amy Kim Waschke) a spirit of great magical talents is tempted down from her mountain cave by her friend and confidant Greenie (Tanya Thai McBride). They take the form of the young “Lady Bai” and her servant and travel down to the beautiful lake town of Hangzhou to spend a day amongst the mortals. Their trip is prolonged when Lady Bai meets and falls in love with Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schnider) a poor pharmacist's assistant. However, their marriage is assailed by the fundamentalist abbot of the local monastery Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro) who will dissolve their “unnatural union” by any means necessary.

Gently enclosed by Dan Ostling’s simplistic set (holding a hundred surprises in its rafter and its walls) and clothed in the bright silks and elegant head pieces of Mara Blumenfeld The White Snake proves itself a fantastic piece of storytelling: souls fall from the sky, houses spring from the earth and each episode in the zany but dangerous lives of Lady Bai and her husband, invents some new wonder at once quaint and disturbingly true to life. Doubt (Emily Sophia Knapp) Xu Xian’s old assailant, tickles us with laughter and then shivers us all o’re, while the frequent footnotes kidnapped from “Secrets of the Chinese Drama”, a guiding influence between the high chinese operatic style (the elder twin to Zimmerman’s own mercurial stage picture), become less and less digressions and more and more integral to the story. And of course, in the fashion of the best theater in all times and places, the whole thing is illuminated in our ears by the music of Tess Brinckman (Flutes), Ronnie Malley (Strings/Percussian) and Michael Palzewicz (Cello).

There are many ways to view the character of White Snake, and she has been painted with many shades down the centuries: lover, monster, heroine, and cautionary figure. Park goes for a very innocent and pure hearted white snake (more Lady Percy than Lady M), her own doubts (never anthropomorphized) do not so much gnaw as trample upon her. That said, when Fa Hai’s intolerance finally pushes her beyond the bounds of civility and craft, you can see why the White Snake is equally feared as loved. But however well she and Waschke may do, and no matter what the title says, the real heroine of the evening is McBride, who invests both her snake and human form with the same frenzied and sublime energy, never lacking a chance to show her keen wit or her great heart.

Perfectly smooth and delightful throughout the White Snake does become a little muddled towards its climax, a pig inside a python, but smooths out to a beautiful (and completely unprecious or preachy) conclusion as all the many ways of this old, old tale is explored come winding down to one center. It is a truly beautiful and invigorating piece of art, that blooms bright once and then fades away leaving you sighing for more. Where can I begin to pin it up for you? I must put myself in the hands of a greater teller and say “You must believe”, and have Zimmerman take it from there.

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