BWW Reviews: A Fascinating, Yet Off-Beat GREEN SNAKE from the National Theater of China
Far be it for me to correct any impressions you, dear reader, might have about theatre-going, but has it ever occurred to you that it might be fun to go see a show? Or that the actors might actually enjoy being out there on-stage, performing for you? And that-professionalism be damned-they might even drop their character and admit how lame and formulaic their stories can be?
One of the charms of National Theater of China's production of Green Snake is its air of informality. We live in a time when a theater's décor-even at the lavish Eisenhower Theater-is so drab that you feel as though you're about to sit through a 2-hour dose of castor oil. Face it-so often we go to theaters today because it's supposed to be all edifying and 'good for us;' and we sit in the dark in total silence in spaces that are already draped in drab earth-tones as if we were miserable sinners all. We clearly have forgotten the joy and conviviality that was originally a huge part of the theater experience.
Director/Adaptor Tian Qinxin has met modern Western audiences halfway, with tantalizing hints here and there of the fun that could be had if we just let ourselves go. To be sure, many traditional Chinese touches are missing here: the flashy, bling-laden costumes, the boisterous pit band and stylized makeup so big you can see it in the back of the house, for example. Instead, we get an austere setting (I would say Puritanical, but perhaps Buddhist might be more appropriate) with simple costumes offering simple lines to the eye. It is a signal virtue of the production that the company has not allowed this western straightjacket to subdue the joyous spirit at the heart of the theater experience.
The storyline for Green Snake draws on the classic tropes of Chinese folk-legend: we begin in a Buddhist monastery near a humble town, and then shift our focus to two slinky babes-literally slinky; they're snakes who have plotted for centuries to assume human form, and so we follow the fates of these slithering sisters, Su Zhen (White Snake) and Xiao Qing (Green Snake).
Because Su Zhen has prepared for her entry into human form for 1,000 years, she finds happy domesticity quicker than you can say "nirvana" and marries the local boy Xu Xian. Meanwhile her kid sister Xiao Qing (Green Snake) has only spent 500 years preparing for the big move; as a result the minute she becomes a woman she goes on a spree, bedding down as many men as she can get her hands on. Green Snake even tries, repeatedly, to seduce the abbot at the local Buddhist monastery, Fa Hai (after all, nothing is more attractive than a man who says "no").
The chaos that ensues is Green Snake's fault, and there is ample time for the characters to muse on their predicament, speculate about the qualities of each other's souls, and-of course-turn to the audience for sympathy, feedbackand a few cheap laughs. We've produced our share of wordy playwrights-Eugene O'Neill and August Wilson come immediately to mind-and the writing team that adapted this novel for the stage, Director Tian Qinxin and An Ying, have clearly embraced that tradition. And it's not just for show-they have taken Lilian Lee's novel and its fictional conceit and used it as an opportunity to reflect on deeper aspects of the human condition, to fascinating effect.
As Green Snake, Qin Hailu has all the exuberance and recklessness of youth, but for all the damage she causes her sincerity and her interest in the truth shines through-and her symbolic transformations from human to snake and back are fascinating to watch. Jin Ge gives her sinewy best as White Snake, but is also compelling as the more responsible of the two sisters. Dong Chang charms us as Xu Xian, the unwitting husband of White Snake, and Xin Baiqing is a study in perfection as the deadpan, sober but troubled abbot Fa Hai; his struggles with temptation, sometimes subtly displayed, remind us how hard true virtue can be to achieve.
And as much as I love traditional Chinese settings the combination of Wang Chen's thread-curtain set and Feng Lei's haunting projection at the opening of the show (where the Green Snake appears positively Medusa-like) create the right combination of simplicity and mystery, reinforcing the motif of fantasy that dominates throughout. Chao Yi has made excellent use of the lighting grid here, creating everything from the bygone days of legend to the harsher light of modern-day China (which we see in a moving epilogue to the story itself). Chan Ku-fang has found a way to communicate character in very subtle ways through costume and hair styling, and David Paul Jones seems to have found the right balance accompanying the aaction with his own music.
At 2 ½ hours this production may be a bit long in the tooth for some, but it is made so much easier to watch because the actors never let you forget they're just actors-and that they're only here to tell you a really cool story from bygone days. Anachronistic touches like glasses-a sure sign of modernity-fit in seamlessly with the Buddhist temple setting, even though the tale of The Green Snake is set in the Song Dynasty, before the USA was even a gleam in King George's eye.
Performances for the World Stages: International Theater Festival take place March 10-30 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For tickets and more information, visit: http://www.kennedy-center.org/programs/festivals/13-14/world/.
Pictured: Green Snake (Qin Hailu) torments her love interest, the abbot Fa Hai (played by Xin Baiqing).