Over the years, The Old Globe Theatre has brought drama, mystery, Shakespeare, comedy and lots of surprises to the stage to entertain its patrons. Arriving March 21 is another sure-to-be hit, “The White Snake,” based on an ancient Chinese fable.
Writer/director Mary Zimmerman has an impressive resume, and said the idea to look at this fable came as a suggestion from Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s (OSF) artistic director, Bill Rauch.
“The play is so enduring with its appeal, and although it’s rare that I don’t have my own ideas, I did as Bill suggested,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t start writing a play until we’re in rehearsal. I write in between rehearsals and bring the script in every day, so the actual time of writing is only as long as the rehearsal. I’ve worked that way my entire career. Design generally takes about a year.
“This is the seventh different production of ‘The White Snake.’ We’ve done it in China at the international Wuzhen Theatre Festival, and several regional theaters.”
Zimmerman’s visionary staging of the fable tells the tale of a gentle serpent that transforms into a beautiful woman. Once she falls in love with a dashing young man, she no longer wants to return to snakehood. This displeases a wicked monk, who vows to destroy her.
The play has received a plethora of accolades from reviewers, who called it “strikingly beautiful,” “unforgettable,” “a lavish, aesthetically stunning production” and “a theatrical treasure to be enjoyed by the whole family.”
Of its success, Zimmerman said, “Part of it is due to OSF and that we’ve taken the show so many places. What touches audiences most is the message that you can be known for who you really are and still be loved. That’s the basis of a lot of fairy tales, and here, it’s actually a beast as a snake disguised as a beautiful young woman. She’s frightened that the man she loves will no longer love her if he knows her true nature. Another audience charmer is that the play is very funny and beautiful.”
OSF has a standing repertory company, so there’s a requirement to use company members, but in assembling her cast, Zimmerman said she also needed more Asian actors.
“The company had some, but I wanted more,” she said. “I was allowed to audition in New York and Chicago and the majority of the cast has stuck with this show. A great addition is Wai Yim, who is Chinese. Many of the Asian actors already knew the stories and grew up with them. They read different versions of the fable, but the engagement of embodying it and figuring out how to do it on stage is their research. There’s nothing more intimate than what the actor does to portray a character because there’s a depth of feeling that has to go into that.”
For the San Diego premiere, there are a few new cast members and a few who shifted roles, but the actors playing the four principal roles remain the same.
“I’m very grateful for Tanya Thai McBride and Amy Kim Waschke, the two women playing the snakes, who’ve played them from the very first day. I wouldn’t want to do this show without them as they are so fixed in my mind,” Zimmerman said.
She added that she feels this will be the last production of “The White Snake” and encourages theater patrons to see it.
“It’s beautiful, funny, visually surprising and there is a lot of puppeteering that goes on,” she said. “Young and old will enjoy the ingenuity of our storytelling as we suspend disbelief and go on a ride. Children love the show, but it does take a frightening turn at the end, and it does have great sorrow in it. At the conclusion it becomes quite philosophical, which is very moving.”