Chicago Theater Review: THE WHITE SNAKE (Goodman)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 15, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider) and the Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride) in The White Snake.Infatuated with alteration, Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman loves transformations, metamorphoses, shape-shifting, and slow to rapid mood swings. Nothing should seem or stay as it looks or as we see it. Astonishment is all. Almost two millennia old, the ancient myth of a white snake who painstakingly enlightens herself into human form has become film, ballet, TV, opera, even a Swatch. The tender tale of an interspecies love story is the perfect chronicle for Zimmerman’s craft—golden grist for her marvelous mill. In The White Snake’s 100 minutes, La Zimmerman turns a curved wooden enclosure into a wonderland of mutability: Her title character battles not just for the right to transcend mortality by loving beyond her realm, but also for a human: the humble young pharmacist who merits and in part returns her sacrifices.

Vin Kridakorn (Boatman), Amy Kim Waschke (White Snake), Jon Norman Schneider (Xu Xian) and Lisa Tejero (Ensemble) in THE WHITE SNAKE at the GoodmanMarking Zimmerman’s 20-year partnership with Goodman Theatre, this is a remount of a staging that already played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory (see Stage and Cinema’s review here), and the McCarter Theatre Center. The Chicago incarnation casts another spell, binding audiences and art more intimately than even Zimmerman’s magnificent but mannered previous Goodman offerings: The Odyssey, Mirror of the Invisible World, and Journey to the West. As always, Zimmerman plays—sometimes fittingly, at times tauntingly–with her text, injecting into the narration alternate explanations or versions of the action at hand or flippantly flattening the dialogue from ceremonial coyness to tart vulgarity. Interrupting the action are assorted “Secrets of Chinese Theater,” essentially stage directions pertly inserted for archival fascination.

The evil monk Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro) is defeated in the Water Battle in The White Snake. (800x378)Accompanied by Andre Pluess’ diaphanously Eastern score played on flutes, percussion, strings and cello by Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley, and Michael Palzewicz, and illustrated by Shawn Sagady’s captivating video projections, the often surprising White Snake moves in every way, instantly recalling Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and, above all, The Little Mermaid and their cautionary lessons on the wonder and danger of judging by appearance.

Tanya Thai  McBride as the Green Snake in silhouette in The White Snake.Amy Kim Waschke’s radiant White Snake morphs from a large rod puppet to a flying serpent to a lovely 19-year-old Chinese maiden, accompanied by her comical companion Green Snake (a saucy Tanya Thai McBride as a smart-mouthed Disneyesque sidekick). The pale reptile quickly wins the heart and builds the business of poor, 23-year-old Xu Xian (ardent Jon Norman Schneider). Accepting the offer of his umbrella during a rainstorm, she entices him into her dream-like red house. Here he discovers a love he could never have expected from a human partner. The bipedal snakes steal money from the corrupt provincial government to seed the start of a prosperous pharmacy. White Snake becomes pregnant (but there‘s no Alien-style monster birth). All seems too true and good not to need conflict.

Monks Lisa Tejero, Vin Kridakorn and Richard Howard gossip about the White Snake’s true identity as Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro, background) listens in.The menace comes from a false priest: Fa Hai (villainous Matt DeCaro), head monk of the mountain-top Golden Temple monastery. Outraged by a forbidden love that flouts the usual bounds (fill in the blanks here as you wish), this bald Buddhist persecutor is convinced that White Snake is a demon, eager to swallow her paramour; Xu’s home is a literal “nest of vipers.” Fa tries to thwart the lovers by sowing doubt in Xu Xian’s trusting heart and seemingly secure marriage. He forces White Snake to reveal her animal origins during a local regatta, a moment that Xu would rather treat as hallucination than revelation. Failing that stratagem, Fa resorts to kidnapping the husband and forcing him to become a world-renouncing penitent.

Amy Kim Waschke forms the head of the White Snake, which includes ensemble members Eliza Shin, Cristofer Jean, Stephenie Sooyhun Park, Tanya Thai McBride and Lisa Tejero in The White Snake.Only an elemental battle between creatures of the air and sea can expose the faithless ecclesiastic. The menaced lovers undergo a final transformation that only time, the bravery of their boy, and the secrets of the Leifeng Pagoda can hope to overcome. Reunited at the moment of their death (the most lyrical and compelling moment of the evening), White Swan, now an immortal serpent, and Xu Xian, cherishing her beyond appearance, enjoy a hard-won apotheosis.

Jon Norman Schneider (Xiu Xian) and Amy Kim Waschke (White Snake) in THE WHITE SNAKE at the GoodmanAs effortlessly propelled as a driven dream, the legend is told, as Zimmerman delights to do, in pictures—vintage charcoal landscapes with distant pagodas that conjure themselves before our eyes, a tug-of-war with a red sash and giant bole, dragon-boat races seen in miniature, the woodland realm protected by a giant crane and “canopus,” a lantern-lit marriage processional. Less magical and evocative, Zimmerman’s terse to sensuous dialogue suffers from occasionally abrupt tonal shifts. But it preserves a tried and seemingly inevitable love story. Equally honest to domestic and epic challenges, The White Snake is a play that plays, words turned to music that matters by an impeccable eleven-member ensemble.

photos by Liz Lauren

Amy Kim Waschke (White Snake) in THE WHITE SNAKE at the GoodmanThe White Snake
Goodman Theatre
170 North Dearborn
scheduled to end on June 8, 2014
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