A supernatural tale of true love thwarted by malevolence, the appealing new production of The White Snake that completes Constellation Theatre Company’s season at Source is an artistic twist on one of China’s Four Great Folktales. The healing power of acceptance of one’s real nature, previously hidden from the other out of fear, in a romantic relationship is at the heart of Tony winner Mary Zimmerman’s 2012 adaptation of the popular legend traceable back to 981 CE.
The deep themes of the play contrast with lighter tones of contemporary dramedy in this presentation. A gorgeous spectacle that respects Eastern culture, it succeeds at entertaining an audience, but takes away from making one feel the connection and pain inherent in the doomed pair on stage. And yet we art lovers want so badly to feel.
The heroine of this story is White Snake (Eunice Bae, translucently talented), a learned snake spirit who transforms herself into a lovely young woman named Bai Suzhen to see our mortal world—just for a day, of course. Her comically blunt-talking sidekick, Green Snake (the scene-stealing Momo Nakamura), becomes her loyal maid, Greenie. The two friends come down from a lonely mountaintop to the city of Hangzhou, one of the seven ancient capitals of China.
In Hangzhou, on scenic West Lake at the Broken Bridge, White Snake—in lady form—notices Xu Xian (the coolly charismatic Jacob Yeh), a humble, sincere man who carries a red umbrella. White Snake makes the sky rain, which gives her an excuse to get to know him.
Days go by. White Snake and Xu Xian are married and open a pharmacy with seed money that Green Snake steals from the magistrate’s office—the dough had been obtained by extortion and corruption anyway. This pharmacy prospers on magical powers. Its potions are mysteriously curative, and word of miracles wrought reaches far and wide. But love has enemies. And Xu Xian doesn’t know who or what his new wife actually is.
So, the villainous monk Fa Hai (an unnerving Ryan Sellers) tells him and shows him how to make White Snake reveal herself.
It does not go well.
To save Xu Xian’s life, a heartbroken White Snake undertakes a dangerous journey to the dark Kunlun Forest, where mean girl Crane Spirit sneers: “You come all this way, fly all this distance, risk your life—and for what? You think your beloved husband would do the same for you if he could see you as you really are? No mortal can see you in your true form and not be repulsed. You think he’d go to the ends of the earth for you? He wouldn’t go to the end of the street!”
All along, the emotion of Doubt (Linda Bard, with compelling wordlessness) has physically hectored Xu Xian, even climbing on his shoulders to weigh heavily on him. But when Xu Xian sees how much White Snake loves him despite being a spirit, his doubt evaporates. These two believe, at last—for as long as this tragic legend will let them.
A duo named Dong Xi—Chinese dulcimer musician Chao Tian and world percussionist Tom Teasley provides the evening’s accompaniment. In every performance, they will improvise live music, an ongoing musical dialogue that envelops the play’s action in joyful warmth. Despite the distraction of what seems like a nonstop mist machine, the Constellation production looks fabulous, thanks to luscious costumes from Frank Labovitz, a parade of inventive props from Alexander Rothschild, evocative set design from Daniel Ettinger, and stunningly intricate choreography by Jennifer J. Hopkins.
At the helm is Allison Arkell Stockman, the founding artistic director of Constellation Theatre and the experienced director of 28 Constellation productions. Her version of The White Snake works as a series of theatrical wonders, interspersed with Zimmerman’s truths that take a whole story to tell, from beauty in the beginning to meaning at the end.
To May 26 at 1835 14th St. NW. $19–$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.