With a tail as old as time, The White Snake slithers in and comes to life at Berkeley Rep, charming theater-goers with its story of enlightenment, true love, deceit and morality. Reimagined, adapted and directed by Tony award winning Mary Zimmerman the ancient Chinese fable takes us high atop a mountain where a white snake has lived for centuries. Her restless spirit seeks enlightenment but true transcendence won’t come until she shape shifts into a woman and lives a mortal life.
Like the white snake herself, the classic story has shape-shifted through time, shedding its metaphorical skin and renewing itself for each new generation of listeners. Playing now through December 23, The White Snake is a beautifully and simply told story that will touch your heart as meaning and magic coalesce to create an unforgettable theatrical experience.
Daniel Osling’s bamboo inspired set is the aesthetically spare backdrop where the fable unfolds. Coupled with imaginative, yet simple props and Shawn Sagedy’s projection design, the overall effect is a constant wonder to behold. In the way that fireworks prompt spontaneous oohs and ahs, the show is filled with one visual delight after another. A rainstorm is ribbons of shimmering blue silk tumbling from the sky as a man sits upstage idly dribbling grains of rice into an old metal pot. An antique pharmacist’s medicine cabinet miraculously appears from beneath the bamboo floorboards and it is filled with many surprises – while an undulating row of handheld paper parasols become just one incarnation of the white snake.
In her puppet form (she’s played in her human form by the wonderful Amy Kim Waschke), White Snake studies the Tao for 1,700 years until at last she achieves enlightenment -- along with some magical skills -- but somehow she is not fulfilled. She consults with her sidewinding companion Green Snake (a playful and spunky Tanya Thai McBride) who suggests a day trip down the slope to see how it is that mortals live.
Reluctantly White Snake agrees and they make the bumpy journey down after shape-shifting into humans. The beautifully evocative score by Andre Pleuss guides them and is played in period dress (gorgeous costumes by Mara Blumenfeld) by Tessa Brinckman (flute), Ronnie Malley (strings/percussion) and Michal Palzewicz (cello). The music fares better without the addition of lyrics but this is a minor point.
Once down the mountain White Snake (now Lady White) falls in love with a pharmacist named Xu Xian (played with innocent charm by Christopher Livingston) and suddenly a day just doesn’t seem long enough. She determines to hide her snake spirit from him and settle down into domestic bliss as his wife. “Greenie” plays matchmaker and after the marriage she remains as Lady White’s companion.
Soon the happy couple is expecting, but Lady White lives in fear that her mortal husband will someday see her for what she truly is and stop loving her. A rabidly conservative monk (a funny and smarmy Jack Willis), who believes that their union is against the natural order, intends to make sure Xu Xian does find out. When Xu Xian refuses to listen, the monk kidnaps him and tries to force him to convert. Faced with the loss of her husband, White Snake must risk detection and use her spirit powers to rescue him.
A great battle ensues with the monk maintaining that Xu Xian’s family is “just a nest of vipers.” He refuses to see that they are happy and in a telling moment Greenie shouts at him that “No one who is happy cares a bean about other people’s morals!”
In earlier iterations of the story, it was White Snake who was the evil one, slyly infiltrating the human world and destroying her human husband - and it was the righteous monk who saved them all by imprisoning the snake spirit under a giant pagoda. But in a more enlightened age, people aren’t so willing to blindly obey the priestly caste and therefore snake spirit has shape-shifted into the tragic heroine. Conservatives still have their say, but in Berkeley Repertory’s White Snake, things are beginning to change.