A mountain. A cave. A white snake. A poor but virtuous young man. A powerful but vindictive monk. A spirit that studies for 1,700 years, becomes enlightened and gains the power of shape-shifting.
Such are the ingredients of "The White Snake," in which the Tony Award-winning adapter/director Mary Zimmerman turns her attention to a protean classic of Chinese folklore. Zimmerman, who has created stage adaptations of such standards of world literature as "Metamorphoses," "The Odyssey" and "The Arabian Knights," wrote and directed the charming new version of "The White Snake" that opened Saturday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Not the least of the challenges was the question of how you represent on the stage a spirit who is, after all, a snake. Various ways, it turns out.
As a huge, coiled, scary, quasi-realistic serpent. As a line of umbrella-carrying actors winding their way — it's not called snake-dancing for nothing — around the stage. And most amusingly, as snake puppets controlled by rods manipulated by the actors playing White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) and her spunky companion Green Snake (Tanya McBride).
When the narration, which shifts among the actors, tells us about White Snake's studies, the audience sees Waschke's snake pouring, or maybe slithering, over the ancient wisdom texts, complete with a tiny pair of snake-size nerd glasses.
The story of a white snake who assumes human form and comes down from the mountain has gone through changes over the eons that reflect both the traditional Chinese fear and respect for the snake. Here she has morphed from a demon into a benevolent spirit.
All this is undoubtedly as familiar in China as the home-seeking of Odysseus or the social banditry of Robin Hood in the West, but for us it requires a little catching up. White Snake has gained great powers but has not yet transcended, which is her objective, or gone to be with the immortals. So she seduces little Green Snake into joining her project in the human world in a scene with resonances of the Garden of Eden.
With the fearless Green Snake as her maid and companion, White Snake chooses Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston) to marry. He feels her energy through her umbrella because they were involved in a former life. When he says he's too poor to marry, White Snake, unbound by the laws of men, simply sends Greenie out to get some treasure from the magistrate's office, which Greenie accomplishes by pulling a heist.
A sight gag has Greenie crawl part way into an opening and throw out tiny bags of loot. This is a neat trick, since she has no hands.
When word gets around of the cures accomplished by the herbs of the pharmacy White Snake and Xu Xian have founded, Fa Hai (Jack Willis), a fundamentalist monk representing patriarchal authority, enters the story as the antagonist, and things get complicated.
Zimmerman is known for writing the scripts of her plays during the rehearsal process. She says that makes for good casting since she can tailor the details of the story to her actors. It also means that whatever takes the stage opening night is bound to be unique.
For this project she worked with members of her usual design team plus casting consultants in New York and Chicago, where she's a member of the Lookingglass Theatre Company and an artistic associate of the Goodman Theatre.
Daniel Ostling's set is a Zen-like expanse of emptiness with blank bamboo walls on either side and a rear screen on which, for the second time this OSF season-opening weekend, sky images are projected.
In the tradition of the realistic theater the use of a narrator sometimes signals a playwright's uncertainty over how to tell or adapt her story (consider "To Kill a Mockingbird"). But in the magical world the device underscores the audience's distance from the action and reflects variations in the tale, as it keeps hitting forks in the narrative. We are in a Magic Place, and the time is long ago, and it's also the eternal now, and our story is on some level an ongoing one.
Since this world can make huge leaps in no time at all ("The monk confined White Snake and Green in an alms bowl and imprisoned them under Thunder Peak Pagoda ..."), Zimmerman has chosen to represent elements of the tale with lights, music, clever props, narration and other stagecraft.
Dance and music provided by a three-piece orchestra in front of the stage help tell the story. Stag and crane spirits appear in fanciful costumes. Xu Xian's soul is an piece of fabric. When an actor is soaked by rain represented by watery (or snake-like) ribbons that descend from above the stage, he wipes moisture from his rain-soaked clothes by throwing aside a ribbon.
You expected a colorful show with some dimestore Taoism. You did not forsee the abundance of sharp humor (XuXian: I was a prisoner in a dark cell! With vegetarian dishes!). Or an ending that turns out to be more complicated, and moving, than it initially seemed.
One of the innovations Artistic Director Bill Rauch brought to OSF several years ago was a practice of mounting one production each year of a play from outside the Western Canon. "The White Snake" joins a lineage that includes the Japanese "Throne of Blood," the Nigerian "Death and the King's Horseman" and India's "The Clay Cart." That is a noble experiment. But it is difficult to think of a play of any sort that inspired in an opening night audience the kind of gaping, almost childlike delight inspired by "The White Snake."
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.