Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie in the world premiere production of “The White Snake” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: courtesy mellopix.com

The worldwide premiere of The White Snake, Mary Zimmerman’s atmospheric retelling of an ancient Chinese legend, is a visual and artistic wonderland. Zimmerman conceived, wrote and directed The White Snake in the spirit of her previous Berkeley Rep productions, which include Metamorphoses and The Arabian Nights. Zimmerman and the talented cast and crew make the ancient story come alive by using their imagination, creative vision, beautiful aesthetic and inventive stage techniques.

The tale of the white snake, originally published in 981 CE, has transmogrified over time. It began as a cautionary fable in which a man has a brief affair with a woman dressed in white. The man soon becomes ill and dies. It later seems that there never was a woman dressed in white, only a white snake. Moral: beware the evil snake disguised as a beautiful woman. Much later, the fable developed into a love story in which a white snake risks all for love.

Amy Kim Waschke and Emily Sophia Knapp in “The White Snake,” directed by Mary Zimmerman. Photo: Jenny Graham

In Zimmerman’s version, co-produced with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the white snake (an excellent Amy Kim Waschke) lives on a lonely mountaintop with her friend, Greenie, a spunky green snake (terrific Tanya Thai McBride). The two snakes, longing for interaction with the world below, take the shape of humans and join in the village life.

The white snake falls in love with a seemingly naïve man, Xu Xuan (talented Christopher Livingston). The two marry, but the white snake struggles to keep her secret. She fears society’s scorn and the wrath of the mean-spirited Buddhist monk, Fai Hai, who wants to punish the white snake and separate her from her husband.

Mary Zimmerman and her talented production staff (Daniel Ostling-scenic designer; Mara Blumenfeld-costume designer; T.J. Gerckens-lighting designer; and Andew Pluess-music and sound designer) create expressive paper snakes that seem to move independently. One large red carved chest functions as a home, a bed and a store. The costumes, lighting, music, staging and effects wrap the legend in a magical cloud of blue ribbon raindrops.

In fact, the ingenious staging at times seemed to overpower the fable itself. Yes, I was caught up in the plot and looked forward to its resolution, but the characters never really touched my heart. As I left the theater, my thoughts rested on the spectacular and creative beauty of the production, rather than the emotional content of the story and the plight of its characters.

Zimmerman has earned national and international recognition in the form of numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (1998). She received a 2002 Best Direction Tony Award for Metamorphoses. Zimmerman has also directed operas. She was the director and co-librettist of the 2002 opera Galileo Galilei, with music by Philip Glass. In 2007, Zimmerman staged a new production Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, for the Metropolitan Opera. For the company’s 2009-2010 season, Zimmerman directed a new production of Rossini’s opera Armida starring Renée Fleming.

Zimmerman has now directed seven productions at Berkeley Rep, which the Chicagoan calls her “theatrical home away from home.” What a pleasure it is to have a woman of such intelligence, imagination and creativity working in our own backyard.

The White Snake, Mary Zimmerman’s gift for this holiday season, is a sensory delight and a gorgeous piece of theater, and plays through December 23.

For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep.

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Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...