A few weeks ago, I joined members of the Chinese press and two fellow Scenemakers for a sneak peek rehearsal viewing of Goodman Theatre’s The White Snake followed by a Q&A session with its writer and director, Mary Zimmerman. We voyeurs installed ourselves in seats against the rehearsal room wall ready to witness what is technically called a ‘stop-and-go,’ where the director, cast, musicians and stage manager ‘stop’ at various places during rehearsal and ‘go’ over a list of things to work on, like the intention of a particular line or the rhythmic pacing of a stroll around the stage.
Before the stop-and-go has even started, a Chinese journalist asked, “Why The White Snake?” Ms. Zimmerman answered, “Well, I really enjoy working within an Eastern aesthetic. I’m also intrigued by old stories, ones that have been around for a long time, that have earned their keep, so to speak.”
The ancient Chinese tale of The White Snake has serious longevity, having been told for nearly 2,000 years, albeit in varying versions. The tale Ms. Zimmerman translated for Goodman’s Dream Season is of a gentle white serpent spirit who lives for centuries on a mountaintop. One day, restless after spending hundreds of years studying Taoist magical arts in the hope of becoming an immortal, White Snake and her eager and earnest friend, Green Snake, transform themselves into young women and travel down the mountain to the human world. There, White Snake fatefully encounters a man whose path she crossed years before in her snake form. After essentially being ‘set up’ by Green Snake (as any good friend would do when she sees the perfect catch for her gal pal), White Snake and the man fall in love.
White Snake chooses to remain human and hide her snake identity from her love so they can be married and start a family, but a hateful monk discovers what she is and becomes determined to destroy the happy home that she’s built. White Snake endures some serious trials and tribulations in the play but in her darkest time her devoted friend, Green Snake, is there ready to do battle, literally, for her girl. What BFF wouldn’t be?
The rehearsal started at the top of the story where we’re introduced to White Snake, who takes many visually whimsical forms throughout the play, including a trail of undulating umbrellas, a giant serpentine puppet and a beautiful woman enrobed in white. Ms. Zimmerman and the actors stopped at the scene where Green Snake, played by Tanya Thai McBride, tries to convince White Snake, played by Amy Kim Waschke, to abandon her prudent ways for a frolic into town for a day.
Ms. Waschke and Ms. McBride performed in the play’s world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as in the east coast production at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. That extensive time together may account for the two actors seeming like longtime friends, finishing each other’s sentences, expressing shared thoughts on how they can support each other in the scene and giggling when they flub a few attempts at their adjustments before getting the scene right for them. The bond between Ms. Waschke and Ms. McBride reflects on the authenticity and natural playfulness of the friendship between White Snake and Green Snake.
Before our sneak peek ended, Ms. Zimmerman confessed that although the main love story is between a man and a woman, or more accurately between a man and a snake, she especially likes the story of friendship between White Snake and Green Snake. Ms. Zimmerman wonders which of the two characters women audiences, and especially young girls, will gravitate to: the studious, self-sacrificing and heroic White Snake or the funny, impulsive and loyal Green Snake? I’m betting what resonates most with audiences will be the friendship that develops between the two during their adventures and their dedication to each other along their journey. In that sense, Ms. Zimmerman’s extraordinary adaptation of The White Snake unassumingly pays homage to what BFFs apparently have been doing for centuries: having each other’s backs, or in the case of invertebrates, having each other’s skins.
The White Snake runs at Goodman through June 8, 2014.