Event Review: Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake"

Zimmerman's "The White Snake"
An afternoon with Mendel and Cathy is always a treat.  Especially when it involves a trip to the Berkeley Rep to see Mary Zimmerman's new play The White Snake and chatting afterwards at Imperial Tea Court in the gourmet ghetto.  I also found that the past three months I've spent wading through ancient Chinese art at the Asian Art Museum has created a foundation from which to appreciate a beautiful play about the evolution of storytelling in China.

Although The White Snake has fewer acrobatics that Zimmerman's Argonautika and little of the ribald humor of The Arabian Nights, the play is more visually stunning than anything else I've seen by her.  Daniel Ostling, the scenic designer, comments "The general geometry of the set came from scroll paintings:  a long, horizontal blank space with very carefully chosen details."  Mara Blumenfeld, costume designer, says "[what] I'm most proud of with the design for The White Snake is color... the Chinese use pattern upon pattern in different scales and colors that I wouldn't necessarily think of combining together... I think some of the combinations are really surprising and beautiful."

Madame White and Xu Xian
The luscious simplicity of the visuals aside, it's the story that drives the play.  The narrative roots for Zimmerman's adaptation trace to T'ang Dynasty China and a 5-story pagoda on the West Lake of Hangzhou that reputedly traps underneath its foundations a demon in the shape of a white snake.  In the intervening centuries multiple stories have reinterpreted the snake and her mortal male lover.  Sometimes she's simply a demon, sometimes the lover is coerced into becoming her husband.  Religion creeps in- sometimes the demon is subdued by a Taoist priest, sometimes the snake herself is a Taoist adept.  A few centuries later, the stories include Buddhists battling with Taoists for power.  In Zimmerman's version, the Buddhist abbot is an intolerant iconoclast who, failing to defeat the snake, kidnaps her husband to forcibly convert him to Buddhism.

But Madame White, the human version of the white snake, is the ever changing focal point of the play.  She chooses to leave her position as a powerful Taoist-adept-in-a-snake on the mountain to see what's going on in the town below.  Through deception she attracts the attention of a man she fancies, and chooses to remain in a human form.  Hundreds of years spent meditating on a mountain is no match for the spiritual complication of engaging in life as a woman, however.  Despite her fearsome mythological powers, she finds her happiness rests in the heart of a man and his ability to love her for who she really is.

White Snake Meets Brother Crane
There's a great deal of symbolism in the play about the dualistic nature of snakes.  Snakes are good, evil, deceive, heal, threaten, kill, and embody fearsome mythological powers.  Characters die and characters are resurrected, all throughout a great deal of dissembling.  But what I find truly interesting is the humanity of the characters despite their otherworldly natures.  And now that Zimmerman has covered Greece, the Middle East, and finally China, here's hoping she turns to India next.