Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth

March 31, 2012

Amy Kim Waschke and Emily Sophia Knapp in The White Snake. Photo: Jenny Graham/OSF 2012
How do you bring a myth alive for a contemporary audience? What does it take to get audiences to identify with something ancient in a modern context while still maintaining some connection to an older artistic tradition? These are questions familiar to director Mary Zimmerman who has had several notable projects that do just that including her Tony-award winning production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from 2002. Her latest adaption of a traditional myth or fable opened up earlier this month at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and is based on the Chinese legend of the White Snake. Zimmerman’s play, The White Snake bears the familiar hallmarks of many of her other adaptations including startling visuals and a preference for a modern, plain vernacular for the characters’ speeches. The show also makes clear reference to the multiple and varied versions of the story that have existed as part of the oral and written traditions used to hand the story down over time. And it is precisely these moments, the more philosophical and ambiguous ones that work the best in Zimmerman’s current staging.

The basic elements of the story concern a hundreds-of-years old white snake that has developed magical powers over time through study including the ability to take human shape. She does, and soon she, with the assistance of her sidekick, a green snake also transformed into a woman, becomes involved with a human male. However, the relationship is eventually exposed by a monk who condemns it as forbidden by natural law. The overtones in a contemporary political climate are obvious, but Zimmerman never directly drags the issue of gay marriage rights into the open in the show. She is still plumbing the same contemporary strains that have recast the myth as a story of forbidden love with two lovers who must overcome their own secrets and opposition by outside moral authorities to be together. That the show is running in repertory with a new production of Romeo and Juliet is clearly not a coincidence.

Zimmerman’s keen eye for beautiful stage images gives this story of love and morality an ideal setting. A largely bare stage sets off the opulent folk-influenced Chinese costumes of the cast. There is a significant amount of video material used for projected scenery and Zimmerman makes broad use of puppets and other enhanced costumes à la Julie Taymor to manage the animal parts of the story line. Ribbons of fabric fall from above like rain and there is one gorgeous tableau after the next in a show with some of the best scenic design and lighting I’ve seen in years. Those credits go respectively to Daniel Ostling and T.J. Gerckens and honestly are reason enough to see the show.

And yet not quite everything clicks as well as it might. There are some profound and outright touching moments in the piece, and Zimmerman and her excellent ensemble cast milk them all. But she’s also going for a very broad palette here, not unlike a Shakespeare play with a little bit of everything from comedy to romance to drama. And while the story is big enough to handle all of these even in the one act, 100 minute running time, the balance feels off. The comic moments in particular can come off pandering at times in the direct, modern language of the text. The audience I saw the show with was not above big group sighs over a romantic kiss or applauding the villain getting his comeuppance. And while every audience is different, it highlighted some of the more manipulative aspects of the scenario which tended to undercut some of the bigger emotional truths and philosophical points The White Snake tries to score later on. Which makes the show a sentimental journey to be sure, but it's still one ultimately very much worth taking.


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