Serpent spirits, meddling monks
In a beloved Chinese legend, a snake spirit disguised as a beautiful woman falls in love with a young scholar. White Snake keeps her true identity secret from him, but a disapproving monk persists in unmasking her. With the help of Green Snake, White Snake summons all her magic powers to defeat the spirits and monsters threatening her life and her great love. With live music and beautiful visual metaphors, Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman invites your imagination to her staging of this fantastical transcendent romance.
Green Snake (Tanya McBride) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) ride the clouds to the earth below. Photo: Jenny Graham.
The White Snake was beautiful. Everything about it seemed like a perfect production. I have no complaints.
First, the staging was so clever! It actually reminded me a bit of Disney’s The Lion King musical, no doubt because the human/animal characters seem to have been somewhat inspired by the way that musical is staged. White Snake and Green Snake, while in their animal forms, were sometimes depicted by little puppets controlled by marionette sticks. At other times, their ‘snakiness’ was conveyed by actors lined up in rows holding paper umbrellas that scintillated like the coils of a serpent. This magical versatility extended to the rest of the staging, too. The stage itself was pretty bare, with only minimal set pieces. A billowing piece of silk unrolled could become the clouds or a running river – whatever was needed. The digital background (usually a pet peeve of mine) constantly shifted to match the mood, but for once the technology was unobtrusive and complimented the physical set.
XuXian (Christopher Livingston) and White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) marry. Photo: Jenny Graham.
White Snake had both the nearly-infinite wisdom of an immortal scholar and magician, but Amy Kim Waschke also brought a touching naïveté to her role as her character leaves behind her mountain home to better understand the humans. A thousand years of studying ancient texts doesn’t always prepare you for dealing with living, breathing people, so White Snake was extremely lucky that Green Snake (Tanya McBride) hadn’t been quite so dedicated. What her feisty, devoted sidekick lacked in learning she more than made up for with her quick wit and enthusiasm to follow White Snake wherever she went. Many of the side characters, even though they appear but briefly, leave quite an impression. Special props go out to Cristofer Jean, who narrates the legend as the play progresses, pausing to point out divergent moments in the legend where variations have cropped up in the story. He also plays the Stag, whom White Snake visits to save her husband’s life, in a performance that recalls his terrifying turn as a forest spirit in 2010’s Throne of Blood. But it’s always the friendship between the two snake-women that hold the story together and keep it spellbinding.
Green Snake (Tanya McBride) entices White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) to leave the mountain for the world below. Photo: Jenny Graham.
What else can I say? The White Snake is a work of art. Although it is short compared to the festival’s usual Shakespeare – about an hour and a half with no intermission - it doesn’t feel rushed or incomplete. From what I’ve heard, the play’s script was still being written and refined during the final rehearsals were underway, which makes it seem all the more amazing that it came together so well. This is probably the best show I’ve seen at OSF…so far!
Green Snake protects White Snake and her new husband on their wedding night. Photograph by Jamie Francis, The Oregonian