Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The White Snake
The Old Globe

Tanya Thai McBride
and Amy Kim Waschke

The White Snake is a fable, and as so shares qualities with fables from other cultures, such as those of the Greek storyteller Aesop. Its story is relatively simple, there are magical qualities to some of its characters, and, like Aesop's fables, it concludes with a moral that makes for a nice finish, even though you may not have quite seen this particular finish coming. And that's actually a good thing.

Director Mary Zimmerman has made a specialty of staging classic stories and fables, ranging from the epic Odyssey to The Arabian Nights, which centers of storytelling as a means of soothing savage tempers, to her most well-known project, Ovid's Metamorphoses. In each case, she finds ways of telling stories that bring the audience closer, rather than hold it at arm's length.

Ms. Zimmerman often makes a performance at one theatre and then tours it to other theatres, and such is the case for The White Snake, which originated at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. So, despite the fact that this production marks Ms. Zimmerman's directorial debut in San Diego, she's bringing with her a show that has been produced at several other places, mostly with the same company.

Now, other than the fact that this is the second Old Globe main stage show in a row that is touring (Murder for Two was also a tour, and will soon open a run up the road at the Laguna Playhouse), there's nothing inherently wrong with the presentation of pieces that Artistic Director Barry Edelstein thinks Globe audiences should see.

And, in each case, some will enjoy the unique style of performance brought by each company. I happen to like the way Ms. Zimmerman tells a tale. She does so simply but in a visually affecting manner, taking advantage of a story's inherent theatricality wherever possible. Truth be told, I'm happier with the way this tale is told than I was with the manic pianists' telling of the previous tale.

In The White Snake the theatricality includes puppetry, flowing silks, and various members of the ensemble sharing the narration required to keep the plot from bogging down. There's nothing here that Globe audiences haven't experienced before, but the devices are so well used that they seem fresh.

The cast, too, appears to relish creating a fable that seems to find deliberate parallels with contemporary life (Ms. Zimmerman, who often adapts her stories for the stage, is credited this time as writing the play, "based on the classic Chinese fable," rather than adapting it). As the snakes, white and green, who turn themselves into women in order to enjoy human life, Amy Kim Waschke and Tanya Thai McBride make for contrasting figures—Ms. Waschke elegant as she works her magic on the townspeople and on Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), her chosen bridegroom, while Ms. McBride portrays her emotionally volatile sidekick with good humor. Mr. Schneider, by contrast, makes dumb and goofy work as appealing aspects of his character. As Fa Hai, the villain, Matt DeCaro never lets the audience forget that he is the only character who is not deceived by what White Snake and Green Snake are doing.

The ensemble (Stephenie Soohyun Park, Dan Lin, Kristin Villanueva, Wai Yim, Shannon Tyo, and Gary Wingert) and especially the musicians (Elize Shin, Ronnie Mlley, and Michal Palzewicz, all of whom are company members) execute Ms. Zimmerman's vision with precision and grace. They are ably supported by scenic designer Daniel Ostling, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, lighting designer T. J. Gerckens, sound designer and original music composer Andre Pluess, and projection designer Shawn Sagady.

At its heart, The White Snake is a simple story told with style and elegance. Some audience members will connect with the script's echoes of contemporary life, while others may be annoyed by the same references. And, while the performance runs a brisk 100 minutes, by the time it's done you're ready for it to be done.

Even so, Mary Zimmerman is a theatrical creative force whose work should not be missed.

The Old Globe presents The White Snake, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and based on the classic Chinese fable, through April 26. Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at the Old Globe Theatre, a part of the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center in San Diego's Balboa Park. There will a Wednesday matinee performance on April 15 at 2:00 p.m. and no matinee performance on Saturday, April 18. Tickets (which start at $29) are available from the Old Globe Box Office by calling (619) 23-GLOBE or by visiting

Photo: T Charles Erickson

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie