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OSF Day One: The White Snake

June 15, 2012

My second annual trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival kicked off last night after a seven-hour drive from San Francisco with The White Snake, a world premiere re-telling of an ancient Chinese folk tale by Mary Zimmerman.

I have previously admired Zimmerman's vivid stage adaptations of old yarns -- the Berkeley Repertory Theater has brought shows like Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights and Argonautika to the Bay Area with great success.

But The White Snake comes across as didactic and visually cliched. It's a bit of a snooze.

Of course, like all of Zimmerman's shows, the production is very pretty. The Chinese tale about a snake spirit who visits the human world in human form, falls in love with a mortal and then has to overcome great odds including doing battle with a fire-and-brimstone monk who discovers her true identity and tries to separate her from her mortal husband is told through a veil of floating silks, brightly-colored robes and delicate paper parasols.

The Asiatic kitsch feels careworn as a visual concept, though. From the iconic director Ariane Mnouchkine to the Bay Area's own Mark Jackson, this aesthetic has been pulled out many times before. The ensemble cast does a fine job, however, of breathing delicacy and strength into mise-en-scene.

The director attempts to fill out the very linear allegoric form of the storytelling with an ongoing joke about narrative conceit. Zimmerman makes explicit the different versions of the myth and how a storyteller has to choose which narrative thread to follow by stating the two options as being like a snake's forked tongue or a fork in the road. After a while, though it is intriguing to hear about the different paths that a story can take depending on which version of it a listener or teller subscribes to, this device gets tedious and expected.

Finally, the play's allegorical message about equal rights -- why shouldn't a white snake marry a human being? -- is simplistic and overly didactic. Ultimately, the production doesn't offer much to the marital debate beyond a stump speech for laissez faire.

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