Chicago-based Mary Zimmerman’s seventh show at Berkeley Rep (co-produced with Oregon Shakespeare, which offered the staging earlier this year) recalls her first, in that it too dips into the well of classic Chinese folk tales. But where “Journey to the West” 15 years ago was a sprawling epic, “The White Snake” is a narrowly focused one-act that charms but seems rather slight for much of its length. Still, the writer-director’s latest adaptation finds her inventive stagecraft as alluring as ever, and by the end, this Buddhist fable achieves its own poetic gravitas.
White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) is a “demon spirit” — albeit a very nice one — living on a mountain, dutifully working her way toward transcendence and immortality via committed study. After hundreds of years, her knowledge has become such that she’s achieved magical powers that will prove useful when her less spiritually evolved friend Green Snake (an impish Tanya Thai McBride) convinces her to satisfy both their curiosities by descending into the world of mortals below. Assuming the shape of beautiful young women as they slither down, they meet Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), a courteous youth of humble situation. White Snake instantly forgets her promise to return home after just one day, using her powers not only to woo the equally smitten man, but to set them up in a comfortable home and trade.
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As Xu Xian is a trainee pharmacist, they open their own such practice. But the lady’s miraculous healing powers attract unwanted attention from Fu Hai (Jack Willis), abbott of the local monastery. An envious, devious, mean-spirited type despite his station, the cleric schemes to end hapless Xu Xian’s “unnatural” marriage and expose Madame White as the demon he’s correctly surmised she is. He ultimately succeeds, though there’s a lovely coda in which true love has the final word.
Zimmerman’s text and staging boast her usual beguiling mix of elements faithful to the source and drolly modernized, with a layer of intelligent self-consciousness manifested here in periodic forks in the narrative road. In these moments, we’re told that versions of the story (which has evolved in printed form for more than a millennium) differ, and are briefly offered two or more paths forward before settling on the one Zimmerman favors.
On a mostly bare stage bookended by bamboo walls, the cast of 11 evokes events from rainfall to tsunamis in playful terms, deploying occasional song, choreography, puppetry and projections, with key assistance from T.J. Gerckens’ rich lighting palatte and Mara Blumenfeld’s vivid costumes. A non-traditional trio (flute and cello, plus Chinese strings and percussion), also costumed, plays accompaniment at the lip of the stage.
One reliable charm to Zimmerman’s stage world is that even her most fanciful effects are always unmistakably human. There’s just as much hand-crafted immediacy here to the full-sized snake evoked by actors brandishing white parasols as there is to the individual comic effects achieved by McBride and Livingston, standouts of a fine ensemble.