"Sir, you are married to a snake!” the holy man Fa Hai tells bewildered Xu Xian at the Golden Monastery. “You are coiled in the snares of a snake demon.” His wife and her sidekick Greenie “are neither virtuous, nor young, nor women. They are snake spirits that have spent hundreds of years cultivating their magic powers.”
Fa Hai’s right. Xu Xian’s wife, Bai Suzhen, is the White Snake. She studied the Way of the Tao for either 1000 or 1700 years (she mentions both). She can soar on clouds, defeat demons in battle, and change her shape. Now she must complete one final step for transcendence: she must “serve” a timber merchant who saved her life generations ago. He was reborn in a city down the mountain. His name is Xu Xian.
So the White Snake and Green Snake, her Sancho Panza–like companion, slither down the mountain, their tails wagging like rattleless-rattlers, and metamorphose into Bai Suzhen and Greenie. They plan to visit for just one day. Bai falls fast for Xu Xian, a lowly pharmacist’s assistant and he for her — quizzically because somehow she has money and a “noble” house that wasn’t there before. And she wants to get married now.
Love makes Xu feel he’s seeing reality for the first time. But, says one of The White Snake’s five narrators, when love ends “we have the exact same sensation: that we have suddenly awakened back to real life.” So which is the illusion?
That’s one version of events. The popular Chinese legend of star-crossed lovers has several. Playwright Mary Zimmerman presents them as different narrators. Two can’t even agree where the original mountain was: in the middle or toward the southwest end of the country?
In early versions, White Snake Lady is a “demon spirit,” up to no good. In later tellings she represents unconditional love. Part of the fun of Zimmerman’s account comes when the story “forks” into competing versions. What do to? Tell both? Resolve them somehow? Or finesse and move quietly on, as in: okay, White Snake didn’t meet the Bodhisattva that night; it was just a dream, but one “we should remember.”
In a sense, all the characters “fork”; all are competing versions of themselves. When the snakes assume the shapes of women, are they mystic reptiles or human beings? Or as Fa Hai slurs, neither? Fa Hai’s all extremes too. The “holy man” is so spiritually advanced he can see the past and the future, yet he has a “villainous heart.” But wouldn’t enlightenment erase villainy? And how can we account for that when we try to tell our version the story?
Even Xu Xian lives a double life. Though he falls almost completely for White Snake Lady, lurking suspicions hold him back. White Snake fears that if he knew her origin, he’d leave in a heartbeat. Xu’s convinced the truth — the real — wouldn’t change him at all. What hurts is her refusal to tell him. She prefers the illusion.
In Zimmerman’s playful, theatrically imaginative direction, we aren’t simply told that Xu has doubts. Whenever he does, long gold fingernails frisk him. And Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set, tilted bamboo walls on the sides, is at once real and a dreamscape, made so by Shawn Sagady’s projections: clouds on the floor, baby blue streamers falling like rain, red crabs waddling from right to left on the rear wall — while time travels from left to right, be it a yellow parasol moon inching along or sunlight through three windows stealthing across the floor.
Throughout, the real and the dreamlike share, and often compete for, the stage. So is seeing believing? No says Greenie, for humans, “believing is seeing.”
Anyone expecting a solemn presentation of the famous legend, all rusty reverence and no spirit, is in for a surprise. The White Snake is as impish as inspirational. At times Zimmerman risks — and reaches — the Dreaded Cute: when Greenie conjures with “Abraca-snakie”; when White Snake shouts “Mama mia” (in-joke reference to the Broadway show?); parts of the search for the “glossy ganoderma plant,” the only scene where invention lags and self-parody sets in.
The principals have performed White Snake at several venues, and it shows. Amy Kim Waschke’s excellent White Snake “forks” from one voice to another. At times she’s near-immortal; at others she loses it, drops character, and growls bossy commands. As limber as a rag doll, Tanya Thai McBride must have the most fluid chakras in theater. Her Greenie’s a delight throughout. Matt DeCaro’s appropriately villainous as Fa Hai, but also funny, as when, in a semi–John Wayne voice, he informs Xu that “This is Buddha’s country!” Jon Norman Schneider’s Xu registers keen levels of perplexity and curiosity.
Andre Pluess’s sounds and original score — three musicians on cello, bass, gongs, woodwinds, and drums — enhance throughout, especially when those nagging contradictions keep popping up, and the music must veer with the story.
But farther down the road, according to the legend(s), the veering will cease altogether. Convergence lies ahead.
Directed by Mary Zimmerman; cast: Amy Kim Waschke, Stephenie Shoohyun Park, Tanya Thai McBride, Jon Norman Schneider, Dan Lin, Kristin Villanueva, Wai Yim, Matt DeCaro, Shannon Tyo, Gary Wingert, Eliza Shin; scenic design, Daniel Ostling; lighting, T.J. Gerckens; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; sound and original music, Andre Pluess; projections, Shawn Sagady
Playing through April 26; Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623. theoldglobe.org