The White Snake
The Chinese legend of the white snake has been around for almost 3,000 years. During that time, the story has been transformed and reinvented by its various tellers. It started as a tale of a man seduced by a shape-shifting demon. But by the 17th century it had become a romance in which White Snake, transformed into a beautiful maiden, falls genuinely in love with a young man.
In the Berkeley Rep's sumptuous new production, "The White Snake," the narrative acknowledges the story's various forks ("like the snake's tongue," one of the ensemble tells us). But written and directed by Tony Award winner, Mary Zimmerman, the story adheres to its more modern origins. It's a tale of star-crossed lovers whose romance is threatened by a narrow-minded society, embodied in Fa Hai, the high-handed and arrogant abbot of the local monastery.
But this tale is far more comedy than tragedy. And with Zimmerman's gift for theatrical invention, "The White Snake" is a dazzling visual feast of color and creativity.
The story begins when White Snake and her companion, Green Snake, decide to descend from their mountain to check out the human world below. They've been studying to achieve enlightenment for thousands of years and have learned much of the magic arts. They're able to transform themselves into beautiful young women.
Once down from the mountain, White Snake almost immediately falls in love with a pharmacist's assistant, Xu Xian. The two marry and are perfectly happy, until Fa Hai shows up and tries to convince Xu Xian that his wife is a demon. Though Xu Xian laughs off Fa Hai's words, the doubts have been sown. White Snake must now fight to keep her husband at her side.
Staged on a simple and open set (created by Daniel Ostling) whose centerpiece is a pharmacist's cabinet that finds a delightful array of uses over the course of the narrative, "The White Snake" invites its audience to conspire with the company on its imaginative journey.
Equally simple devices (an umbrella as a snake's head, silk scarves representing rain) evoke a childlike gift for invention that, in this era of high-tech and the overdone, are deliciously refreshing.
Combined with Shawn Sagady's gorgeous but equally simple projection design, the staging reflects the primeval world of myth and symbol from which this story arises. It also creates a fitting backdrop for the extravagantly colorful costumes, created by Mara Blumenfeld to evoke the rich silks and patterns of traditional Chinese clothing.
The players themselves, who might be easily upstaged by the enchanting staging, are consistently capable. As White Snake, Amy Kim Waschke makes a convincingly love-struck protagonist, while Tanya Thai McBride carries much of the play's comedy with a firecracker performance as White Snake's side-kick, Green Snake.
Christopher Livingston plays the oft-bemused Xu Xian with a wonderful naïve charm. And, as Fa Hai, Jack Willis is a delightfully malignant antagonist determined to nix the lovers' romance simply because it goes against what's "normal" and right.
Playing multiple roles (including a vengeful crane god, a more congenial stag god and a claw-handed personification of Xu Xian's doubt), the remaining cast members are as adept at shape-shifting as White Snake herself.
It's easy to draw parallels between the ill-fated White Snake and Xu Xian and the modern-day experiences of those of us who, like them, dare to push against society's rigid boundaries for the pursuit of love.
Indeed, it was these moments in "The White Snake" that delivered the most emotional power in a narrative that, while consistently charming, never quite matched the splendor of its staging, Nevertheless, with this one fault, "The White Snake" should not be missed.
"The White Snake" runs through Dec. 30 at The Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street in Berkeley. For info or tickets, call 510 647-2949 or visit the theater’s website