a review of Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, playing at the Berkeley Rep until December 23rd

By Alexander Quionones-Bangs 

Photo Jenny Graham/More than beauty?
“A tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme...” No, wait, that’s the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, but given the age of the “White Snake” story, it’s not surprising that there are parallels to other fairy tales of note. Snaking a course between adaptations ancient and old, director and writer/adapter Mary Zimmerman retells this centuries old Chinese legend in a myriad of ways. An interspecies love story of sorts, The White Snake is about Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), a scholar who thinks he falls in love with a woman (Amy Kim Waschke), but soon finds out that she’s actually a snake, a beautiful white snake. In turn, our snake dreams of becoming a goddess, but along the way falls prey to the most human of emotions, love. They’re not quite Romeo and Juliet, but their problems have real complication and fascination and Zimmerman’s visually sumptuous retelling of this timeless story is a treat to all that your eyes can take in and more. Still, there’s one overriding question here: is the actual play, like its namesake, worthy enough within to withstand looking past its obvious beauty.

What is never in doubt is the quality of the production, in all its Sino-centric glory. Daniel Ostling has put together a set equally adept at transporting us to a rainy lakeside or a humble pharmacy, and in accompaniment with T.J. Gerckens’ lighting what we see is often simply exquisite. The real set stealer, however, are the projections that engulf the rear of the stage. Shawn Sagady uses animated ink washes and crashing waves that give a sense of a story endlessly repeating itself. At times he does his job a little too well, and I found myself staring at the backdrop instead of what was happening on stage.

Photo: Jenny Graham
The entrancing nature of Sagady’s projections is not the only distraction. The Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater, like other large theaters, can dwarf the actors if the stage is bare. This is compounded by Gerckens’ choice of often dimly lighting the actors; so instead of focusing on the action, the eye tends to wander around, seeing what else might be happening. Perhaps Zimmerman meant to have the stage symbolically echo those aspects of the “White Snake” that emphasize the endless cycles of life and death, rather than the characters themselves. Nonetheless, like the multiple versions of the story we get, the set becomes the attraction, and the people, or I should add reptile, who fall in love with each other and who desperately want to stay together, drift from focus.

This is unfortunate, because White Snake and Xu Xian make a nice couple and Waschke and Livingston play them with a calm and steady charm; yet their story doesn’t quite hold our attention and they’re overshadowed by the antics of Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride). McBride invests her role with a tremendous amount of energy, and it works. You’re annoyed at first, especially when you compare it to Waschke’s natural tranquility, but then you just give in to McBride’s scene stealing turn and enjoy her antics. She’s a great deal of fun, but that fun also unbalances the heart of the story. It should be noted that the only character that actually arouses any true feeling is Fa Hai (Jack Willis)—Willis does an excellent asshole and man do we hate him.

Photo: Alessandra Mello
There are many excellent parts to The White Snake, but they never come together in any kind of cohesive way, and ultimately the blame must be pointed at Zimmerman’s script. The play feels like an anthology of ways the story of the “White Snake” has been told over the ages, complete with references to other possible directions and endings. One could argue that that’s the point and that Zimmerman is offering us not a story told straight, but a reflection on the many different skins of the “White Snake.” By now, we’re used to fragmented storytelling – it’s moved from the fringes of experimental fiction to mainstream movies and television – and we get the way it privileges commentary over direct engagement. What we lose in focus, we gain in scope, but scope is a scholarly ideal and not particularly suited to telling a story, and especially a theatrical one. In the end, Zimmerman’s The White Snake is a bit too “meta” and scattered to garner any emotional force or for you to feel any true investment. You come away feeling entertained, but not satisfied.

It’s jarring to say that because from start to finish The White Snake is a thing of beauty – the de Young museum should do an exhibit on Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes alone – but, ultimately, that’s all it is: just beautiful. The flow of the story is frequently broken by comments on Chinese theater practices and ways the story has changed since its beginning, but that keeps it from the more difficult task of telling a story and allowing us to truly feel it. You want to like it, it does keep your attention, it’s never boring, and, as I’ve tried to say, it is quite pretty to look at, but that’s just not quite enough.

For tickets go to or call (510) 647-2949

Photo by Alessandre Mello/White Snake in all her beauty
©The CCA Arts Review and Alexander Quionones-Bangs

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