(L to R) Amy Kim Waschke (White Snake) and Jon Norman Schneider (Xu Xian) in The White Snake at Goodman Theatre, May 3 - June 8, 2014 (photo by T. Charles Erickson)
An ancient love story with a modern feel, The White Snake is Tony Award-winner Mary Zimmerman’s new stage adaptation of a nearly 2,000 year-old Chinese fable that has been reimagined throughout the centuries. Young (ages 10 and above) and seasoned audiences alike will likely enjoy the charming tale of girl meets boy and falls head-over-heels in love. The trouble is, the girl is a white serpent from the spirit world who must join the human world in order to attain her heart’s desire—a sincere and simple young man. A vengeful monk, appalled by what he perceives as an immoral interspecies relationship, then intends to thwart her pursuit.
“Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake has already seduced audiences across the country, and we are proud to produce the Chicago premiere,” said artistic director Robert Falls. “Mary has a gift for reimagining ancient tales for modern audiences; her enduring fascination with myths and their mysterious power fuels some of her most luminous creations, including The Odyssey, Journey to the West and Mirror of the Invisible World. Her hauntingly beautiful and emotionally absorbing The White Snake is an experience that will stay with you long after you see it."
From a 2011 feature film (The Sorcerer and the White Snake, starring Jet Li) to the inspiration for a Swatch wristwatch, the legend of the White Snake, her feisty companion Green Snake, her true love Xu Xian and the evil monk Fa Hai has sparked numerous interpretations and captivated audiences across art forms and cultures. Rooted in Chinese oral tradition, the first printed version appeared in the 10th century and has fueled thousands of retellings, from Peking and Cantonese operas to ballets, stage musicals, television series and films.
“To me, the great charm of The White Snake is how it mixes the fantastical and supernatural with the utterly every day. It’s a universal story of star-crossed lovers that is, in spite of its ancient pedigree, completely alive, visceral and action-packed,” said Mary Zimmerman, who uses narration and projections (designed by Shawn Sagady) in her production, which had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (February 2012), followed by productions at Berkeley Repertory (November 2012) and McCarter Theatre Center (October 2013).
Joining the 11-member multicultural ensemble cast will be three musicians who play cello, flute, percussion and Chinese and Middle-Eastern lutes—the Pipa and Oud, respectively—and improvise to create a unique musical journey each night.
Costume Designer Mara Blumenfeld, who has worked with Zimmerman on more than 20 projects in Chicago and beyond, uses iconic imagery of the legend of the White Snake in this production, plus some unlikely sources. “We looked at Chinese opera, children's illustrated book versions, anime and graphic novels, wood carvings, sculpture, ancient Chinese costumes from the Tang and Song dynasties, as well as Mary's own inventive form of storytelling,” said Blumenfeld. “The story is such an integral part of Chinese culture; it has been exciting as a Western artist to get to study and re-interpret this story for an American audience."
One of the top theater creators in America, Mary Zimmerman is the Goodman’s Manilow Resident Director and the recipient of a 1998 MacArthur Fellowship, the 2002 Tony Award for Best Director of a Play and numerous Jeff Awards (including Best Production and Best Direction). In addition to The Jungle Book, her Goodman directing and/or adapting credits include acclaimed productions of Candide (2010); Mirror of the Invisible World (2007 and 1997); Pericles (2006); Silk (2005); Journey to the West (1995) and The Baltimore Waltz (1993). Her other works include Arabian Nights, Argonautika and The Secret in the Wings (Lookingglass Theatre Company). She is a professor of performance studies at Northwestern University.
The White Snake runs May 3 – June 8 in the Albert Theatre (opening night is May 12). Tickets can be purchased by telephone at 312.443.3800, at GoodmanTheatre.org/WhiteSnake or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts