Mixed marriages are never easy… especially between nerdy young shop clerks and millennia-old, mystical serpent spirits in human guise.
That’s one of the major takeaways of writer/director Mary Zimmerman’s latest concoction at the Goodman. This time, her source material is an ancient Chinese tale of a mountain-dwelling snake genie and her serpentine companion, who having mastered the Tao, decide to crown their enlightenment by assuming womanly form and descending into the world they have renounced. There, White Snake/Lady Bai (Amy Kim Waschke) falls in love with the gentle, unassuming Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), and the planned one-day visit to earth gets extended. It’s farewell, Tao, hello, soap opera, as Lady Bai and her devoted Greenie (Tanya Thai McBride) use their supernatural abilities to entice Xu Xian into matrimony and fend off their implacable enemy, the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), who is adamantly opposed to fey marriage.
Zimmerman summons up all of her own magical visual powers in staging this spectacular pageant of puppetry, music, movement and media. Hardly a moment passes without a strikingly beautiful or amusing image, whether of the moon as a paper lantern walked slowly across the boards, or the gnarled fingers of anxiety probing the hero’s vulnerable psychic places. Andre Pluess’ haunting, Philip Glass-like score (performed by a topnotch live orchestra), Shawn Sagady’s marvelous back projections and T.J. Gerckens’ dreamlike lighting come together to produce a ravishing sensory experience, complemented by Daniel Ostling’s austerely elegant set and Mara Blumenfeld’s flowering, rich-hued costumes.
What with the sheer gorgeousness of it all, gnawing questions about the show’s content and purpose emerge only later. Why, one may wonder, has Zimmerman taken what was at least in part a horror story about demonic concealment and turned it into a relentlessly pretty little fable? Even when Xu Xian sees his beloved wife in her true, scaly form—a fatal revelation—White Snake still looks like something out of the FAO Schwarz catalog.
By draining the tale of its darkness, the director has also emptied it of much of its resonance. The original White Snake, like all folklore serpents, is a symbol and archetype of nature’s transformative and sometimes deadly energy. But here the danger and terror have been mostly effaced, leaving a Disneyfied residue of cloying cuteness and moralistic cliché.
This is so much a director-dominated production that it seems irrelevant to speak of acting. Suffice it to say the performance style is an uneasy blending of East and West, with little emotional range, nuance or complexity. We leave the intermission-less, hour-and-forty-minute show with our eyes glutted but our minds bare of actual insights about China, Taoism, Buddhism… or marriage, for that matter.
“The White Snake” is a classic postmodern exercise, borrowing a strange and funky old narrative, stripping it of its depth and mystery, and transforming it into a glittering product miraculously attuned to pop culture sensibilities. Zimmerman’s work has myriad fans and funders, who justifiably admire the artist’s remarkable stylistic gifts. But for those who like a little something to chew on with their theater, this Chinese meal of a play will disappoint, leaving them hungry for substance an hour or so after finishing. (Hugh Iglarsh)
Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800. $25-$86. GoodmanTheatre.org. Through June 8.