Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The White Snake," which opened Saturday, is a sophisticated fairy tale, complete with monsters, puppets, a villain, ennobling tasks and lots and lots of sly humor.
As adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, it recounts a classic Chinese fable — or perhaps an allegory? — of a wise white snake spirit who, intrigued by the human world, transforms herself into a beautiful young woman. She falls in love with and marries a mortal man, Xu Xian. Their love is threatened by an overbearing, dogmatic Buddhist abbot, Fa Hai, who is against the intermarriage of a spirit and a human and seeks to "rescue" Xu Xian from this folly.
How does love exist between two such different beings? How does love evolve? Can it withstand the suspicions and disappointments common to all close relationships? Can this love withstand outside forces seeking to destroy it?
Beginning with its use of amazingly effective snake puppets, "The White Snake" seduces the audience into the suspension of disbelief. As the play's action is narrated by characters who appear, disappear and reappear, the story flows and the disparate story elements all manage to fit together perfectly.
Zimmerman, who won a 2002 Tony Award for her direction of "Metamorphoses" on Broadway, has evolved a fascinating working technique of writing her scripts while the conceptual play is in rehearsal, utilizing insights provided by her actors and the design team as the onstage action is developed. This intuitive approach is daring and, obviously, very risky for a world premiere. Luckily, "The White Snake" is a triumph of this technique. There is no feeling of the play being improvised or patched together.
White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), an evolved spirit-being, becomes fascinated by the human world below her home on the mountain. She studies it and decides the only way to satisfy her curiosity is to explore it for herself. She shape-changes into a beautiful woman. As she sets out on her journey, she meets a less cerebral, more impetuous and action-oriented friend, Green Snake (Tanya McBride). Intrigued by the adventure, Green Snake volunteers to be a human-form servant, "Greenie."
The audience learns through narrating characters that in a previous life, White Snake was saved from destruction by a young man. According to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, it is now White Snake's destiny to return the favor.
Or, maybe, the meeting between White Snake and Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston) is just a coincidence ...
Zimmerman has the narrating characters (Christofer Jean, Richard Howard, Emily Sophia Knapp, Ako) periodically offer us two versions of the story, both equally charming, both equally valid. It is the play's strength that the narrators, who appear and disappear, also are enchanting and never intrusive.
At the beautiful West Lake, White Snake encounters Xu Xian and they fall in love at first sight. Despite Xu Xian's misgivings, White Snake contrives to marry him and they set up their own apothecary shop. The marriage is blissful and White Snake soon becomes pregnant.
Enter the villain, the Buddhist abbot Fa Hai (Jack Willis). Betraying all the principles of Buddhism, Fa Hai is dogmatic, intolerant, corrupt and self-aggrandizing. He is appalled that Xu Xian is married to a spirit-demon and seeks to destroy the union — by preaching, by prophecy and, ultimately, by subterfuge.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ostling's fanciful design is integral to Zimmerman's telling of this story, complete with floating silk as clouds, rain and waves. Zimmerman also artfully uses simple snake puppets, outsized finger-nail claws, inconvenient tails, umbrellas and Shawn Sagady's mesmerizing visual projections, along with Mara Blumenfeld's lush Chinese costumes to further the story.
Will White Snake triumph over Fa Hai's plots? Will her love for Xu Xian and his love for her withstand the awful truth of her real nature? Will Greenie's down-to-earth strategies prevail?
Zimmerman has said that her constant in this ever-evolving tale is the dream that with the right person, "each of us can be seen down to our core, down to the unguarded, writhing part of our darkest self, and still be loved."
"The White Snake" and Zimmerman have beautifully captured their audience with that lovely, pure thought.
Note: "The White Snake" plays only through July 8. You'd better get your tickets as soon as possible; this one is going to be a sellout.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.