After more than a year-long renovation, Baltimore Center Stage unveils its new modern look—spacious, welcoming, sleek and inspirational—with an equally visually captivating and enchanting production of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake.
Director Natsu Onoda Power deftly handles the hallmarks of a Mary Zimmerman production: lustrous visuals, puppetry, vivid costumes and spellbinding music by Jeff Song and movement that cast a specific, special spell.
Zimmerman has adapted Shakespeare, The Odyssey, Arabian Nights and other epic stories and with The White Snake she takes on an ancient Chinese fable that has been adapted and reimagined for the times for more than a thousand years.
On a spare stage with a metal raked structure that suggests the mingling of water and sky, the cast lines up a row of white parasols, upon which inky images of mountains are projected. Off the side of the stage sits a small orchestra featuring pan-cultural instruments such as the kayagum, skakuhachi, oud, marimba, cello, bass guitar, violin and toy piano.
This gorgeous opening visual and aural motif sets the mood for the tale of the animal spirit named White Snake (Aimé Donna Kelly, a luminous and powerful goddess-like presence), who is at first seen as a pale serpent puppet operated by a ninja clouded in white fabric.
After centuries of learning and enlightenment—the snake dons spectacles for this period, a witty touch—the White Snake takes on the form of a beautiful young maiden. But for what purpose? The cleverness of Zimmerman’s adaptation is that often the path of the narrative diverges to include different interpretations.
Here, the White Snake is either commanded by the unearthly beautiful Bodhisattva (the exotic Pooya Mohseni) to repay a kindness to the son of the man who saved the White Snake’s life long ago or she is tempted to learn about the world below the sacred mountain and have a little fun at the cajoling of her restless younger friend the Green Snake (a feisty, fearless Eileen Rivera).
They shed their skins to become human—White Snake a serene lady and the Green Snake her loyal servant nicknamed Greenie. On their very first day on earth, White Snake falls in love with Xu Xian (Joe Ngo, conveying good heartedness with engaging vigor), a poor pharmacist’s assistant boarding with his combative sister and brother-in-law.
At the mere touching of hands while returning an umbrella, White Snake and Xu Xian are smitten. Even though Xu Xian has doubts—represented by a wraith-like puppet with twig talons that rake over his body—White Snake’s goodness and abundance wash over him and cleanses any misgivings.
Soon, they are operating their own pharmacy and White Snake and Greenie’s healing arts bring customers from far and wide, including a nasty monk Fa Hai (a sneering Peter Van Wagner), who senses the young women is indeed a spirit. Fa Hai is determined to show Xu Xian that his beautiful wife is a sorceress snake who has no business being married to a mortal and expecting his child.
White Snake and Greenie go to extraordinary lengths to defend and protect their earthly forms and Xu Xian, including a mystical forest encounter set to Asian hip-hop music with the Stag (a powerfully rapping Damian Thompson) and Crane (a sneering and preening Linden Tailor) animal spirits and a showdown between the water and air spirits that have the slow-motion martial arts moves brought to western attention in the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
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The White Snake
closes March 26, 2017
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They cannot keep their true natures secret forever and it is both unsettling and a bit comical to see snake tails popping out from under White Snake and Greenie’s elaborate gowns (Nicole Wee’s costumes are sumptuous creations of silk, satin and embroidery rendered in super saturated colors), sibilant hisses that slip from their mouths and slithery movements that can no longer squelch.
Director Power and movement coach Stella Choi use repeated circular patterns that coil and uncoil to suggest serpentine movement as well as to accentuate the theme of opening up to reveal a truth and then closing up to keep secrets hidden. It is all hypnotic and dreamy like all good folk tales.
What are we to gain from the spectacle of this ancient story? That kindnesses should be repaid tenfold; and the importance of loyalty and sacrifice, certainly. Yet the most poignant and piercing message concerns love. That falling in love means shedding your old skin so that you can be seen not only as you truly are, but seen eternally through loving eyes.
The White Snake written and adapted by Mary Zimmerman from the classic Chinese fable . Directed by Natsu Onoda Power: Featuring: Aime Donna Kelly, Eileen Rivera, Joe Ngo, Peter Von Wagner. Music Director: Jeff Song. Original Music: Jeff Song, Yukio Tsuji, Jason Kao Hwang, and Joshua Ziemann . Scenic and Projection Designer: Hana S. Kim. Costume Designer: Nichole Wee. Lighting Designer: Rui Rita. Sound Designer: Alex Hawthorn. Puppet Designer: Andrea “Dre” Moore. Stage Manager: Larry Smiglewski . Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.