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The White Snake
Guthrie Theater, McGuire Proscenium Stage

Also see Arthur's review of Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet

Christofer Jean and Kim Waschke
With The White Snake, Tony Award winner Mary Zimmerman has created a play that is a meld of pageant, dream, cultural excursion and love story. Create is the operative term, for as writer and director, she is responsible for both the text and the imagery, the placement and the pacing, of all that transpires. The result is a wonder to behold.

The White Snake is a frequent character in Chinese myth and folklore, with the first published version appearing in 981 AD. In various renditions, the White Snake has different characteristics—from goddess to temptress to demon. Zimmerman's White Snake serenely presides over her spirit domain in the clouds, supported by her high-spirited companion Green Snake. Greenie's desires are lofty and more practical than her mistress's—she longs to come down from the clouds and visit the world of human, if only for one day. Persuading White Snake that just one day could not hurt, they make the journey, transforming into human form.

One day turns out to be long enough for White Snake to fall deeply in love with a young assistant pharmacist, Xu Xian, who shows kindness to the two travelers. The story unfolds to reveal how White Snake and Green Snake struggle to remain in the human world, to draw Xu Xian into their lives, and the path of true love through their hearts.

Conflict occurs when Fa Hai, a high priest of rule-bound religion, discovers White Snake's true identity. He tries to warn Xu Xian, and then goes to great lengths to prevent Xu Xian from falling victim to the demon White Snake, claiming that she will "devour him." The balance of power between the love's passion, offered by the White Snake, and the strictures of orthodoxy proclaimed by Fa Hai, shifts back and forth, leading to a final resolution that leaves open the door to eternal hope.

The story would be engaging and thought provoking told around a campfire, in the way that mythology leads us to ponder the truths of our real-world existence. However, this production is far more than words recited by a talented cast. The tale is told through visual language, with spare dialogue serving only as a frame for fantastic tableaux and transformations. A billowy sheet is one moment the sea, another a mountain, and then a cloud. The snakes themselves take various forms, most marvelously as a procession of white umbrellas turned to face the stage, creating the slithery profile of White Snake. Streamers of blue silk descending from the ceiling are a rain storm; actors are masked to portray a great crane, and a many-antlered stag. We see the doubts Xu Xian experiences regarding his love's true nature as claw-like appendages scratching at his body. A trapezoid of light creates a small boat adrift on a dark sea. The abundance of imagination used to make the fantastic appear on stage is breathtaking.

Sound is also an essential component of the sensory banquet. The use of chimes and other effects, and original music underscores the emotional tenor of each scene. The ornate costumes, extravagantly based on traditional Chinese style and color, also contribute greatly to the sense of elevated experience. The sets and projections function as elegant canvasses for the stage pictures springing from Zimmerman's vision.

Matt DeCaro and Cast

Individual performances are somewhat overshadowed by the emphasis on visual impact, seamless transitions, and blurred lines between reality and fantasy. That said, the entire company plays out their roles with precision, and in deference to the character each inhabits. Special mention must be given to Tanya Thai McBride, who, as Green Snake is engagingly mischievous while always a loyal companion. Jake Manabat's Xu Xian projects a true innocent's heart being swept away by the unexpected power of love as he battles doubts and logic. As the White Snake, Amy Kim Waschke always hold our attention, maintaining focus on her central character in spite of the panorama of scenic and aural delights.

Several times in the course of the show, the action halts for a recitation of an item from "The Secrets of Chinese Drama," describing rules that govern such common place stage business as seating a guest. These moments halt the continuous flow of action and emotion in the story, which is somewhat of a dis-service to the play. However, they offer an interesting contrast between the highly regulated style of traditional theater and the freely ranging use of images and movements Zimmerman has concocted.

The White Snake will be a wonderful experience for theatergoers who enjoy archetypal stories that place message and moral over complex conversation; for anyone intrigued by the art and craft of creating wondrous images on stage; and most certainly for those of any age who welcome nourishment of their imagination.

Continues at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage through October 19, 2014. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets from $15.00 - $65.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to

Writer and Director: Mary Zimmerman; Set designer: by Daniel Ostling; Costume designer: Mara Blumenfeld; Lighting designer: T.J. Gerckens; Original music and sound designer: Andre Pluess; Projection designer: Shawn Sagady; Voice and language consultant: Lucinda Holshue; Stage manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant stage manager: Chris A. Code; Assistant director: Jon Ferguson; Design assistants: Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound); Intern: Katie Creeggan

Cast: Amy Kim Waschke (White Snake); Stephanie Sooyhun Park (Guan Yin and others); Tanya Thai McBride (Green Snake); Jake Manabat (Xu Xian); Vin Kridakorn (Boatman and others); Lisa Tejero (sister and others); Cristofer Jean (Brother-in-Law and others); Matt DeCaro (Fa Hai and others); Emily Sophia Knapp (Crane and others); Richard Howard (Canopus and others); Eliza Shin (Acolyte and others). Musicians: Tessa Brinckman (flutes); Ronnie Malley (strings & percussion); Michal Palzewicz (cello)

Photo: Liz Lauren

- Arthur Dorman

Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region

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