BWW Review: Constellation Theatre's Magical THE WHITE SNAKE
Constellation Theatre is closing its season of love stories with a big one from the East. Thankfully "The White Snake" is not about the 80s English metal band. Instead, it's an ancient, oft-told Chinese folk tale, which was breezily interpreted by Mary Zimmerman originally for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014. It's brought to lyrical life in a production directed by Allison Arkell Stockman that combines puppetry, movement and a beguiling, underlying musical performance.
When the elegant Eunice Bae first appears (in one of a series of Frank Labovitz' beautiful costumes), she is also operating the snake puppet she portrays (designs with precision and skill by Matthew Pauli, and adding the occasional hiss to her voice. Living on a mountain, she hopes to attain Tao enlightenment. But a funny friend, Green Snake (the excellent Momo Nakamura, operating her own puppet) suggests a girls' day trip to the village, for which they have to assume the shapes of women (and ditch the puppets).
There, White Snake meets an earnest pharmacist's assistant (Jacob Yeh) and love blooms. But a vengeful monk (Ryan Sellers) steps in to stop the familial bliss. It has the making of any classic tale and builds in a 100 minute presentation where clever stagecraft, smooth choreography in sending the story through the clouds and to the sea using big swatches of fabric. The choreography of Jennifer J. Hopkins animates the large supporting cast through these adventures on a set by Daniel Ettinger, and lit by Max Doolittle, that rivals any of the fine restaurants up and down 14th Street NW from The Source, where this is being staged so intimately.
But again, it's the music, from the team of Tom Teasley on percussion, and Chao Tian on Chinese dulcimer, performing as the group Dong Xi, that heightens the action into a kind of splendid unfolding musical fantasy, punctuating every movement and emotion in an authentic way, down to the gong that begins the show.
Yet, there's very little precious about the handling of this tale. Zimmerman has almost a casual approach, with a knowing good humor, as narrators and the troupe occasionally present different versions of how the story has been handed down or criticize how it's going down. Still, the enchantment extends to the parasols on the side of the stage to the glowing lanterns at show's end, helping create a springtime bliss equal to the brief lifetime of flowering trees outside.
Running time: 100 minutes, with no admission.
Photo credit: Momo Nakamura and Eunice Bae in "The White Snake." Photo by DJ Corey.
"The White Snake" by the Constellation Theatre Company, continues at Source, 1835 14th Street NW, through May 26. Tickets at 202-204-7741 or online.