by Richard Dodds
King Midas was a character in Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, but it would seem it is Zimmerman who has the golden touch. In The White Snake, her seventh creation to be staged at Berkeley Rep, she again transports an audience to magical, golden places derived from theatrical imagination. Other Zimmerman works seen at Berkeley Rep have included Argonautika and The Arabian Nights, and again she is mining ancient myths in ways that speak to their timelessness while capturing contemporary sensibilities.
In Chinese lore, the story of an enchanted snake that takes human form and marries a mortal has gone through numerous iterations that have evolved from bad-snake to good-snake scenarios. A narrator acknowledges the many forks in the story's evolutionary road, and Zimmerman has opted for a serpent that starts off properly ensconced in regal residency on a mountaintop. This white snake has been absorbing knowledge for more than 1,000 years, and is at first leery of a younger snake's suggestion that they take a quick joyride into the realm of befouled mortals. "We should know the world we are denouncing," says the green snake to her elder to justify this transgression of cosmic order.
By this early point, we have already seen the snakes as ground-level puppets, as a chorus-line of actors using parasols to suggest a stage-wide serpent, and in human form with the white snake in the attire of a highborn lady and the green snake as her playfully roguish assistant. As the snakes transmute, so does the dialogue with its unexpected, amusing shifts from arch formality to modern-day jargon.
Zimmerman also gently mocks the tale's lapses in logic, which aren't limited to the notion of snakes turning into humans (even if a tail does occasionally flop out from the bottom of their dresses). When the white snake identifies an impoverished apothecary's assistant as husband material and proposes marriage, the young man deadpans to the audience, "This is all so sudden." And when a tyrannical monk summons the snakes to his temple to castigate them for playing at human games, he snarls, "Don't trip over your little girly gowns on your way out."
Specifically, the monk cannot abide mixed marriages, and there are any number of allusions to contemporary topics that arise mostly in a silky fashion befitting a production that makes ample use of silk for visual effects. As is Zimmerman's way, both eyes and ears share in the production's rewards, with further credit due to scenic designer Daniel Ostling and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld.
The White Snake is a co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and most of the players were in the Ashland cast earlier this year. They are quite wonderful, further bringing alive a surreal world. The group notably includes Amy Kim Waschke and Tanya Thai McBride as, respectively, the white and green snakes, Christopher Livingston as the mortal who unwittingly marries into a strange dynasty, Jack Willis as the ogre-ish monk, and an ensemble that morphs into multiple characters and creations. A three-piece ensemble adds musical enhancement.
There are stories that can best be told on film, and there are stories that can only be told in a theater. The White Snake fits beautifully into the latter category.
The White Snake will run through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $29-$99. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.