By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 2 hours one 15-minute intermission
Old fairy tales and fables usually make for good fodder for stage productions, usually for what one would call “children shows” but they’re taking it up a notch down at Baltimore Center Stage with their latest offering, The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman, Directed by Natsu Onoda Power, giving us an adult, modern version of an ancient Chinese fable of life and loss.
The White Snake is based on a Chinese fable and is about a spirit serpent who transforms herself into a lovely maiden and ventures from her mountain home into human civilization. She is accompanied by a fellow spirit, Green Snake, who poses as her sassy handmaiden. White Snake soon falls in love with the poor but upright Xu Xian and starts a life with him, only to have her past haunt her.
The story itself is a good story with a good message of “life is short, live it to the fullest” but the adaptation by Mary Zimmerman fell flat for me. Trying to update an ancient tale is always challenging but sometime the simplest route is the way to go, however, in this adaptation, it felt as though Zimmerman was trying too hard to bring this tale into the 21st century. Let me be clear, the ensemble, the musicians, the designs, and everything else about this production are stellar; it’s just the adaptation that doesn’t ring my bell. The spectacle of the production keeps it interesting but with all the modernization Zimmerman doesn’t leave much to the imagination and wants to spell out every little detail of the story making much of it feel a bit over-told with a large host of narrators describing every… little… thing. Through it all, and thanks to the ensemble, the pacing is good and stays just under the 2-hour mark.
Baltimore Center Stage recently went through a hefty face lift and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The White Snake is presented in the Head Theatre, on the upper levels and though it’s a large space, it’s more intimate than it looks and is a perfect space for this piece. Scenic Design by Hana S. Kim is minimal, but stimulating, using tall curved bamboo shoots and creating different levels with platforms. The settings are more represented rather than using intricate and specific set pieces but the design works nicely and the actors maneuver the set easily. Adding to the set, Kim also designed the beautiful projections used in this piece adding a fanciful feel to the story-telling and to the piece as a whole.
Light and Sound Design by Rui Rita and Alex Hawthorn, respectively, add great value to this piece, creating mood changes and helping with pacing from calm moments to the more frantic, garish scenes.
Nicole Wee’s Costume Design for The White Snake is authentic, yet practical and modern. Since the setting is described as “A long time ago, and yesterday.” It is challenging to create a costume plot to fit both times but Wee has managed to give representations of the times with basic costumes and by adding and taking away pieces. The actors act as puppeteers, as well, navigating through the story with snake tales and, at times, full snake puppets, but the Costume Design is comfortable and completely appropriate.
Though I wouldn’t classify The White Snake as a musical but more like a play with music, Music Direction by Jeff Song is creative, contemporary, and innovative. From what I understand, the music for this production was created from scratch, having been created, in collaboration, during the rehearsal process. With its Western and contemporary, yet authentic sound to tell an ancient Chinese fable, the music is original, appropriate, and fluid. It adds to the piece rather than distracting from it and the score blends into the production, moving the story along nicely. Kudos to Song for his diligent and inventive work.
Director Natsu Onoda Power has taken this piece and presents it in an exciting and through-provoking manner staying true to the story but bringing it to a current audience. The fluidity of the show is superb and it moves along seamlessly. Her casting is impressively diverse and her vision is clear making sense out of a hectic script and confusing adaptation.
To comment on the performance aspect of this piece, the entire ensemble did a fantastic job bringing this story to life on the stage. It is a true ensemble piece where everyone plays an important part and participates in just about every moment of the production.
As Fa Hai, the power-hungry head monk who is trying to recapture The White Snake, Peter Van Wager has a great command of the stage and a very strong presence but seems out of place. His tone and movement don’t seem to match those of his fellow cast members; not to say they are bad, because they are not, just… different. Overall, however, he gives a commendable performance.
Aimé Donna Kelly takes on the title role as The White Snake seems a bit subdued throughout most of the production. Her gentle demeanor works for much of her character, but there are particular scenes where I would like to see a little more enthusiasm and desperation. Aside from that minor detail, Kelly gives a comfortable, confident performance and makes the character her own.
Joe Ngo as Xu Xian, the kind, lovelorn, uncertain pharmacist assistant who The White Snake takes a shine to and ultimately wants to spent the rest of her life with is a definite highlight with a complete understanding of his character who is unsure, in love, hunted by a feeling of doubt, and in love all at the same time. His comedic timing is absolutely impeccable and this mixed with his authentic and clear representation of all the other emotions of his character make for a strong, assured performance that is a pleasant experience.
Eileen Rivera as The Green Snake, the sassy, loyal, somewhat quick-tempered, but humble friend of title character is the certain standout in this production of The White Snake. Rivera takes this character and runs with it, making it her own, but exuding the devotion her character has to The White Snake. She is confident and comfortable in her role with on point comedic timing and she understands her character’s purpose to help her friend who is in love and prone to making some curious decisions, but sticking by her either way. Rivera gives a near flawless performance and is a joy to watch.
Final thought… The White Snake at Baltimore Center Stage is a frenetic, modern retelling of a simple fable of the fleetingness of life and the anguish of losing something or someone. Though the adaptation is a bit of a pill to swallow, it’s a spectacle, definitely, with projections, puppets, elaborate dances, and music and not one scene goes by without a collective gasp from the audience. Everything is big, but it works impeccably for this production while keeping everything interesting and engaging and is absolutely worth checking out while enjoying the new digs at Baltimore Center Stage.
This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of The White Snake… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
The White Snake will play through March 26 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For Tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.
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By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy