The White Snake: A Review

By Martin Morse Wooster: Theaters in Washington have their specialties, but Washington’s Constellation Theatre Company is at its best when it does productions of plays by Mary Zimmerman based on fables.  I’ve seen all sorts of productions from Constellation, including one of The Skin of Our Teeth I previously reviewed here and a production of Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play which was the worst six hours I spent in the theatre in 2018 (well, it felt like six hours—the play was 100 minutes long).[1]

But the best work I’ve seen from Constellation is when they perform works by Mary Zimmerman.  Zimmerman teaches at Northwestern and won a MacArthur Fellowship.  She’s written about 20 plays and has at least one Metropolitan Opera commission.  She also did an adaptation of Disney’s Jungle Book for the theatre that I’d really like to see.  I don’t know if all of Zimmerman’s plays are fantasy, but the two I’ve seen are.

The White Snake was originally premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and has had productions in Chicago, New York, and Baltimore before coming to Washington.  The program told me that the story is considered one of China’s “Four Great Folktales” and that the version familiar to us was written by Fang Menglong in 1624, based on stories that were probably composed around 300. Looking at “Legend of the White Snake” in Wikipedia, I learned that the story has been turned into about a dozen Chinese movies and TV shows and was once the subject of a novella by E. Hoffman Price.

The story begins with the White Snake, a mythical creature (I don’t know if she is a god in Chinese mythology) who has obtained enlightenment after 1,500 years of studying the Tao.  But she wants to experience the human world, so with her sidekick the Green Snake, they assume human form, with the Green Snake becoming “Greenie,” the White Snake’s sidekick.  The White Snake falls in love, and we see her and her boyfriend and future husband enjoying the dragon races before marrying and settling down to raise a family.

But the Abbot, who has a lot of mystical power, wants to complicate things.  The abbot isn’t a villain—he just thinks having humanoid snakes running around his town is a bad idea.  So he persuades the White Snake’s husband to come to the monastery in a subterfuge.  The White Snake and the abbot then have a cosmic battle that will determine whether she will live in our world or have to go back to hers.

At one point Zimmerman pulls back the curtain and gives us a sense of how this drama would have been performed in China.  The Green Snake is ready to help her friend, and makes her hand into a fist.  But a pedant comes out with a scroll and explains that the green snake’s fist is a special fist, one with the pinky finger and forefinger slightly raised.  This makes the fist a particularly powerful one, with hands in a position that is normally restricted to men.  So my guess is that if I saw The White Snake in China, I’d see the same story but much more stylized.

The leads—Eunice Bae as the White Snake, Momo Nakamura as the Green Snake, and Ryan Sellers as the Abbot—were all good, and Alison Arkell Stockman competently directed the production.

 But what made the production memorable is the music.  Constellation long ago made a deal with Tom Teasley, a really talented percussionist, to provide the scores for some of their productions.  Teasley is a one-man band who is very good at what he does.  For this production, he worked with Chao Tian, who plays the Chinese dulcimer; the two of them together perform as Dong Xi or “East West.”  Teasley told me that their score was not improvised at the beginning and end of the show because of light cues but much of what I heard was improvisation.  While The White Snake was good, Teasley and Tian’s score made the show memorable.

I hope more of Mary Zimmernan’s work makes its way to Washington.  She is someone whose plays fantasy lovers would enjoy.


[1] Note to “BigelowT”:  you guessed correctly!

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