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The White Snake at the Goodman Theatre

Friday, May 30, 2014 Rob Samuelson

You're running out of time to go see a great show!  The Goodman Theatre's production of The White Snake runs through June 8. Halfstack staff writer Rob Samuelson brings his take.

The oral tradition is directly responsible for every piece of storytelling that has succeeded it. Stage plays, with their inability to literally conjure every fantastical notion put forth by the script, rely on many of the same tools as ancient tale spinners – suggestion, simple design, and trust in the audience's imagination. The Goodman Theatre's current production of Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake amplifies this concept with production design that would have wowed the ancients around the fire.

The White Snake, Zimmerman's adaptation of an ancient Chinese fable about a centuries old snake god choosing the mortal world after finding love with a common man, uses deceptively simple design elements to tell its story. On its face, set designer Daniel Ostling's limited, unchanging stage – the 100-minute play is performed in one act with no intermission – vaguely resembles the bamboo structures of old China one might be familiar with from history classes.

But Zimmerman and the rest of the designers, Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), T.J. Gerckens (lighting), Andre Pluess (music and sound) and Shawn Sagady (production design) give perpetual aural and visual jolts that fundamentally change the way the audience perceives the goings on. Blumenfeld's creature designs humanize these pieces of rubber and cloth, especially when operated by the titular character (Amy Kim Waschke) and her impetuous companion, Greeny (a younger, green snake god played by Tanya Thai McBride); the human characters' personalities reflect in every aspect of their clothing, too. Gerckens's lighting is a primary color smorgasbord reminiscent of old comic books, and his intricate gobos seamlessly place the audience in forests, pharmacies and monasteries. Pluess's music accompanies the show's overall light tone with a whimsical sense of purpose, and his songs – this is a musical, too – are catchy. Sagady's work overseeing this madcap design deserves the ultimate commendation, particularly for the animated backdrop that alternately resembles watercolor paintings, old paperback book illustrations and colonial maritime maps depending on the scene.

But as dazzling as the production elements are, they would be empty and soulless style exercises if they served a less than stellar story and the actors. In writer-director Zimmerman's take, this fable's inherent melodramatic components – choosing love over other opportunities, no matter what other, “wiser” people tell you – are married to a Disney-esque entertainment style that considers humor and adventure as integral to a story's success as the “big themes.” McBride's Greeny is hilarious in her inability to squash her emotions and her constant schemes to keep up her human appearance. Waschke's White Snake tries to remain noble and dignified while often succumbing to her desires, often with amusing results. Jon Norman Schneider, as the White Snake's human husband, Xu Xian, is an upstanding man, if a nervous ball of confusion, particularly once things inevitably get confusing and fantastical. And Matt DeCaro, as the villainous monk, Fa Hai, brings a Scar-like quality to his Machiavellian manipulations, without going to mustache-twirling extremes.

Zimmerman and her collaborators make their ancient forebears proud with their production of The White Snake. The oral fable is enlivened by modern technology and cultural ideas about humor, but the truth at the heart of the story remains strong: committing to loving people over status will inevitably be better for you, no matter the costs.

Rob Samuelson is a writer from Chicago. Stories of all stripes are his thing. You can read his weekly column here at Halfstack, his personal blog at Defeating Boredom, and occasionally at The TVAddict.  Follow him on Twitter @Rob_Samuelson.

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