Charming and resplendent, The White Snake is both fairytale and visual feast. If you’re interested in greater substance than that, you’ll have to wait until the very end of the 100-minute-long one-act production. It’s then – and only then – that an enduring, even existential message is imparted. The rest of the time, The White Snake, onstage at the Old Globe Theatre with playwright and author Mary Zimmerman directing, is as light as the wispy, floating draperies that simulate ocean, sky and rain. Zimmerman’s script is based on a Chinese fable about a snake which transforms itself into a woman, falls in love and strives to remain in the human world. But except for some comic quips and -- as they say in movie ratings -- adult situations, The White Snake could easily be a fantasy tailored for children. Adults, including this one, may find their minds wandering even as their eyes are dazzled by Daniel Ostling’s scenic design, Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes, T.J. Gerckens’ lighting and Shawn Sagady’s projection design.
Yes, the production staff deserves top billing, along with the instrumentalists playing Andre Pluess’ haunting original music for The White Snake. Other than one startling surprise cameo by the eponymous serpent, the audience’s appreciative gasps are stirred by the spectacle of this show more than what happens in it. (The snake puppets manipulated by actors, by the way, are lovable – and you don’t often see “snake” and “lovable” in the same sentence.) Much of the tale is told in onstage exposition, appropriate for a fairytale perhaps but not completely theatrical in effectiveness. Amy Kim Waschke is near-angelic as the title character. Tanya Thai McBride, as her snake-turned-woman sidekick, has the comic part and executes it with little restraint, while Jon Norman Schneider occupies the rather unrewarding role of the White Snake’s lover (and later, husband).
From a narrative standpoint, if The White Snake were more magical realism than fairytale it might resonate beyond its richly inventive images. Not that there’s anything wrong with fairytales. Hollywood loves ‘em. So, evidently, do a lot of theatergoers.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat