BWW Review: THE WHITE SNAKE at Center Stage
Award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of The White Snake, a kaleidoscope of colors, music, and pure theatrical magic, is perfectly set at Baltimore's Center Stage, where the feast for the senses is not limited to the boards. All seemed taken by both the performance and the $28 million dollar make-over of Baltimore's "leading theater."
The main lobby, box office, bar and café, all three theatrical venues (the Head, the Pearlstone, and now the "Third Space" stage) all feature a dramatic new look, with whimsical touches like the glowing walls featuring famous play quotes. Center Stage patrons seemed transported as they took it all in, a feeling which continue throughout the night as director Natsu Onoda Power took the evening's crowd on a fantastical journey of magic, love and enlightenment.
The White Snake is based on a varying legend rooted in China's oral tradition. Zimmerman, known for her stage adaptions of Metamorphoses, The Odyssey and The Jungle Book, places her focus on three main characters: the animal spirits of the White Snake (Aime Donna Kelly) and the Green Snake (Eileen Rivera) and Xu Xian (Joe Ngo).
Centuries of study have raised the White and Green Snake to near immortal status, granting them the power to change shape. Transforming themselves into a beautiful lady and her servant, Lady Bai (Lady White) and Greenie leave their mountain retreat to visit the world of humans. Lady Bai quickly falls in love with a gullible pharmacist assistant, Xu Xian; add some magic, a gold heist, the world's briefest courtship and a level of business acumen and medical erudition beyond the ability of your average snake, and soon the three are soon running a highly successful drug store...and none of this seems terribly bizarre at all, the pace of the production being such the audience has time to "take it all in."
Conflict appears in the form of an influential Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Peter Van Wagner), who suspects that there might be more to the two ladies than meets the eye. Van Wagner uses his natural height coupled with his costume of flowing colorful robes and a jingling staff to create a character that seems more "evil wizard" than a humble "man of the cloth."
It is Fa Hai who encourages Xu Xian to have Lady Bai, now his wife, drink realgar wine during the Duanwu Festival which robs Lady Bai of her shape-shifting power, revealing her to be a snake-a sight so shocking, Xu Xian keels over dead. Lady Bai then begins another journey, this time to face the Stag (Damian Thompson) and the Crane who protect a rare flower with life-giving powers. The scene where Lady Bai confronts these two animal spirits is a blast of percussion and raw power, designed to simultaneously engage yet unsettle the audience, making it clear they are entering a strange new world.
Will Xu Xian and Lady Bai live "happily ever after"? Does Fa Hai have a point that a man shouldn't marry a snake...and father a child by it? Is this play's message ultimately that we are who and what we make ourselves out to be? Isn't the fabric of our hearts more important than the fabric of our skin (or scales)? And once joined in love, is one ever alone...even in death? For a story about shape-shifting snakes and pharmacy assistants, The White Snake provides much for the audience to contemplate, thus providing insights on how this tale has stood the test of time.
The actors clearly relished their roles, and given the variety of parts many in the ensemble had to play, its little wonder why. Pooya Mohseni, Lucy Lavely, Brett Messiora, Linden Tailor, Damian Thompson, Samy El-Noury, Caitlin Cisco, and others did their own "shape shifting" on stage, embracing such characters as Xu Xian's relatives and their homage to "The Bickersons"; an immortal goddess, a slightly dim but honorable monk, townsfolk with assorted ailments, etc.
Costume designer Nicole Wee delivers a rainbow of silk fashions for the actors, and Andrea "Dre" Moore, the puppet designer and constructor, deserves special accolades for creating the white and green snake creatures which Kelly and Rivera manipulate so expertly.
Center Stage's ever creative artistic team found ways to create huge rain storms, flowing rivers and boats, and a mythical landscape with little more than lights, streams of fabric, colorful umbrellas, and image projection.
In "The White Snake", director Natsu Onoda Power delivers a lovely, funny, touching tale, a dance of delight filled with lanterns, lights, and magic, all in just two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
The White Snake continues its run at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, now through March 26th. For more information, visit www.centerstage.org or call the box office at 410-332-0033.