|No, it's not about these guys.|
"Well, I'm sure this was better than the band would have been..." Isabella said as we were seated at the bar of Revival.
It was around 11:00 PM. She was drinking rye, I was enjoying a phenomenally good cup of Blue Bottle's Belladonna, and we were sharing a pear crisp, trying to figure it out. It wasn't the script, which she thought had some really strong elements, and it certainly wasn't the staging, which was effective, and at moments, I found quite beautiful. But despite some strong individual elements, taken on the whole The White Snake left both of us somewhat baffled. Sometimes disparate elements make sense when considered within the whole of something, as they do in Einstein on the Beach- which is a ridiculous comparison, I know, but the only one I can think of at the moment. They can also be a huge distraction, pulling one out of experiencing something which at least seems on its surface meant to be a unified whole.
The White Snake, adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman and now showing at Berkeley Rep (it's a co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), is an old Chinese fable/fairy tale/legend about a snake who falls in love with a human and adopts human form to live as his wife. In this version the White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) has a friend, the Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), who accompanies her (presumably- it's never explicitly stated the snakes are female) into the human world as her companion. The object of White Snake's affection and desire is Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), an affable guy but not exactly a dream boat. Lurking in the background and knowing the truth about White Snake's identity is Fa Hai (Jack Willis), a nasty Buddhist monk who would fit right in with the more extreme elements of the Republican party. If that sounds like an implausible description, and it should, you have an inkling of what I found difficult about the play, which is that the main characters all seem to be inhabiting their own worlds. That would be fine if this were Chekov, but it's not, and the inability of the characters to create cohesion within the narrative framework constantly distracts, leaving the impression that everyone has memorized their lines and mastered the blocking, but for four different plays. Add Cristofer Jean's magnetic, imperial presence to the mix as an occasional narrator/commentator and the effect is only magnified.
|Greenie (Tanya Thai McBride). Photo courtesy of mellowpix.com.|
Just as I began to fall under the spell of the effective, visually alluring puppetry, beautiful costumes (Mara Blumenfeld, and clever set design (Daniel Ostling), a hip-hop flavored song and dance number appeared from out of nowhere, causing Isabella to clutch my arm in disbelief. Still, Andre Pluess' music, performed by Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley, and Michal Palzewicz, is one of the strongest original scores I've heard in a long time. The Green Snake, aka Greenie, has the energy and vocal mannerisms of a manic cartoon character, which clashes with the elegant grace and naivete of White Snake. When Willis enters, with his booming, distinct voice to execute his character's most un-Zen-like intentions, the story line seems to suddenly become a stand-in for the debate on gay marriage. The script references many "forks in the road" but provides no moments at the crossroads. Having said all that, there were folks seated around us who laughed with amusement all the way through it, and if you read the reviews of others it seems Isabella and I are certainly in the minority of people who were left out in the cold of its appeal.
The White Snake plays at The Roda Theater through December 23rd.