As a playwright Mary Zimmerman has shown herself repeatedly to be enamored with fables, the stories to which we so often turn for help examine, explain, and understand the strange and baffling experience of being human. From stage adaptations of the Arabian Nights, The Odyssey, and The Argonautika, to her most critical successful play Metamorphoses, Zimmerman consistently turns to ancient legends with warmth and compassion, looking beneath the familiar plots in order to excavate the deep humanity pervading the stories.
Her latest offering, The White Snake, attractively staged at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, continues her exploration of these themes. It is a beautifully crafted production (Zimmerman also directs) that foregrounds theatricality in order to explore the seemingly universal feelings of love, abandonment, and desire.
The Chinese fable on which this play is based tells the story of a mystical white snake that takes the form of a beautiful woman and woos a mortal man who has no clue of her real identity. Over the course of a number of centuries of retelling (a complicated process which the programme notes helpfully elucidate), the story evolved from one about a demon tricking and killing a foolish man into a tale of romance and complicated love. Zimmerman chose the late manifestation of the story for her adaptation, and so what we have in this play is a story of dangerous, nigh-on forbidden love and the twisted path by which the course of this particular love travels into legend.
White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) is a mystical snake who lives in near seclusion high up on a mountaintop, where she has little to do other than study sacred scriptures. After thousands of years of study, she reaches a level of enlightenment that allows her to understand how to transform her shape into that of a human. Naturally, this skill gets deployed out of boredom. Greeted one day on the mountain by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), White
Snake learns that her latent desires to explore the world below the mountain are even stronger in Green Snake. The two convince each other on the one hand that changing form and exploring the human world below would be a great adventure, and on the other hand that they should only leave for one day and then come right back. Of course this latter portion of the plan goes quickly awry.
In the village below the personified snakes chance to meet Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), a lowly assistant to a pharmacist, who loans them his umbrella when they are caught in the rain. White Snake is immediately in love, marriage plans are quickly developed and enacted, and before White Snake can hiss again, the two mystical creatures are embedded in human society. White Snake and Xu Xian live happily for a time with he unaware of her identity. They open their own pharmacy, Green Snake lives as their servant, and all’s well until the malevolent monk Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro) wanders into town and recognizes White Snake for who she is. Fa Hai endeavors to reveal the truth to Xu Xian—ostensibly because he is certain White Snake will end up killing her human husband—and the play’s drama builds as Xu Xian fights to ignore Fa Hai and White Snake struggles to keep the truth concealed.
As is fitting for a play so deeply invested in magic and mysticism, the production is full of whimsy and charm. Daniel Ostling’s set is deceivingly sparse, marked only by two large panels on either side of the stage to provide walls. But as the play unravels, the back wall serves as projection screen for a variety of mise-en-scene components, and the seeming simplicity of the set reveals its nimbleness. Throughout the show, the stress on theatricality reminds us that we are in a fabled world of make believe: long strands of blue material descend from the flies to signify rain (a “soaked” Xu Xian retrieves one from the stage and wraps himself in it), enormous blankets are fluttered under characters who are flying on the clouds, and simple brown pegs stand in for the trees of a mystical forest.
The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and the puppetry are as beautiful as the set, and just as effective. While the snakes are still snakes, the performers who will ultimately play their embodied form manipulate and voice the snakes as puppets around the stage. When White Snake must go retrieve a magical flower from an enchanted forest, she meets a wonderfully adorned stag and crane, each played by performers in elaborate costumes. The White Snake thus runs the gambit from the minimalist to the ornate. The effect is beneficially unsettling: like the best fables, the play never allows itself or its audience to grow comfortable in the fully realist or the fully fantastical.
Fables and fairy tales at their root examine very human traits, and The White Snake is no different. For all of its beautiful imagery and imaginative production, this is a play about human emotions and desires, and happily the creativity of the production works to accentuate rather than overwhelm those elements. As visually and aurally imaginative as this play ultimately is, Zimmerman is most successful in finding within an elaborate framework of magic and theatricality the charm of humanity.