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Bringing a 'Snake' to Life

Oregon Shakespeare Festival workers are putting the finishing touches on a set and costumes that will transport audiences into a fantastical Chinese world.

Chicago-based director and adapter Mary Zimmerman's version of an ancient Chinese fable, "The White Snake," will debut at OSF on Feb. 18.

Hidden behind the Angus Bowmer Theatre's closed doors earlier this week, OSF workers focused lights on 30 strips of translucent synthetic silk hanging from the stage ceiling.

"There will be special lighting for every moment in the show," said OSF Construction Supervisor Joe Porto. "There's an individual mechanism for each piece of fabric in the ceiling. They'll be loaded up, and when they unroll they'll expose themselves in a pattern that's meant to signify rain. We'll also project a rain pattern on those."

Other crew members were wrapping up work on hanging bamboo poles. "They will create a maze that people will have to navigate," Porto said.

Rows of real bamboo marched up the sides of the set, and underfoot, workers had painted a faux bamboo floor. While the floor looks like bamboo from the audience seating area, Porto said the painted surface will be smoother for the actors.

At the back of the set, images will be projected onto a massive screen, adding to the visual interest of the play.

It's all meant to transport audiences to a mystical place where a white snake transforms itself into a woman and tries to win the love of a man. "The White Snake" is modeled after a Chinese fable that dates back at least 1,400 years.

The play has taken many forms over the centuries. In some versions, the white snake is a demon-like temptress who kills her mate. In others, she embodies the power of love.

Zimmerman, who is known for adapting and writing plays as she goes along, was still perfecting elements of "The White Snake" earlier this week.

The lack of a finished script has been challenging for OSF's costume department, said Costume Design Assistant Merilee Ford Barrera.

But Mara Blumenfeld, a Chicago-based costume designer, has designed flexible, multi-layered costumes for "The White Snake," Ford Barrera said, pointing at rows of colorful costume sketches tacked to a wall.

Ford Barrera said simpler robes and skirts can be topped with jackets and aprons to change the look of the costumes.

The costumes feature lavish fabrics with intricate Asian designs. Men will be clothed in rich colors, such as burgundy, gold and green, while women will wear softer colors, such as lavender and muted, silvery blue.

One of the most stunning costumes of the play will be a shimmering white robe with silk-screened red snake patterns.

OSF's costume shop buzzed with sewing machines and hand-stitching this week as workers assembled costumes for "The White Snake" and other plays for the coming season.

In another room, Chris Carpenter and Caroline Dignes — dyers and painters for OSF — hand silk-screened red snakes and intricate designs known as "endless knots" onto fabric.

Porto said the play also will have some puppetry. He said the character of the white snake will be represented in many different ways throughout the play.

When the costumes, sets, lighting, puppets, projections and other elements are all put together, Porto predicted that audiences will delight in "The White Snake." "I think it will be universally a crowd-pleaser. It will be great for young people. It will be great for people who have never seen theater here before. It's a beautiful show — and it will be funny," Porto said. "I think it will be one of the best shows of the season."

Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

Carpenter Steven Blanchette prepares for the opening of “The White Snake,” a play based on a classic Chinese fable, at the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland. The play previews on Feb. 18 and opens Feb. 25. - Julia Moore