Where: Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 8
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Mary Zimmerman really knows how to do endings. Whether you’re wowed by the Chicago premiere of “The White Snake” because you’re unfamiliar with her work, regard it as the mature expression of her formidable talent or find the storytelling most suitable for children and adolescents, I can guarantee you’ll be brought to tears by the transcendent finale, a moving tribute to the eternal power of love.
Before that, writer/director Zimmerman’s version of the classic Chinese tale, which made its debut at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012 and has been produced at Berkeley Repertory and the McCarter Theater Center, takes as many twists and turns as … the White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) at its center. A supernatural being who lives atop a mountain, she studies for centuries to gain enlightenment but still feels something is missing. So she and her friend, Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), assume human form as young women and fly down the mountain to a town, where she falls in love with Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), an ordinary pharmacist’s assistant who may or may not be the reincarnation of a man who saved her life centuries ago, depending on whether or not you believe a goddess guided her actions, in a dream or reality, or she was prompted by restlessness and Green Snake’s encouragement.
This uncertainty is no accident, because one of the things Zimmerman does throughout is offer alternative “forks” in the fable, often playing magical or supernatural interpretations against realistic or human ones. The canniest twist is that they eventually come together in an all-embracing way.
The course of true love runs smoothly for awhile, as White Snake and Xu Xian marry and prosper in their own pharmacy, funded by Green Snake’s theft of gold from the coffers of corrupt officials. But then one day Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), tyrannical head monk of the Golden Monastery, gets wind of the goings on and, knowing White Snake’s true nature, sets about destroying her — or at least sending her back up the mountain — and her relationship. His first attempt is a trick to reveal her snakiness to Xu Xian, but after Green Snake foils that, he imprisons the young man at the monastery and forces him to become a Buddhist acolyte. White Snake at first thinks herself betrayed, then learns the truth and comes to free her beloved, whereupon an epic battle ensues. And just when the fight seems to be won and all seems to be going better than ever, disaster strikes again.
While our sympathies always are with White Snake, and the narrative — handled by various cast members — seems to be simplistic, there’s actually more ambivalence than one might expect. Evil and hypocritical as Fa Hai is, he’s actually right about the slithery heroine, except that he can’t fathom her love for Xu Xian. She, in turn, does use deception to get what she wants, and in her service, Green Snake, or “Greenie,” resorts to illegal activities.
The real beauty of the show, though, is how Zimmeman brings together music, dance, puppetry, projections, costuming and a whole lot more to craft one stunning stage image after another. Whether it’s backdrops of black-and-white Asian-looking scenes that materialize before our eyes, ribbons of rain that drop from the ceiling (as pebbles are dropped into a bowl to create the sound) or a multidrawer pharmacist’s cabinet that rises from the floor, credit also goes to her regular designers: Daniel Ostling for sets, Mara Blumenfeld for the gorgeous costumes, T.J. Gerckens for lighting and Andre Pluess for original music and sound design, as well as Shawn Sagady for the projections. The musicians — Tessa Brinckman, Ronnie Malley and Michal Palzewicz — are terrific and add immeasurably to the effectiveness of the storytelling.
Quite a few of the cast members are veterans of earlier productions of “The White Snake,” and while I don’t find the acting as compelling as in other Zimmerman creations, McBride is a lively presence as Green Snake, and DeCaro has the malicious Fa Hai down pat. Schneider’s Xu Xian is too bland and timid to be worth White Snake’s attention at first, but as his confidence grows and his basic goodness emerges, he becomes more engaging. So does Waschke’s White Snake, as her desire for self-gratification gives way to deeper emotions and she risks all to save her love.
If put on the spot, I’d have to admit that “The White Snake” isn’t my favorite Zimmerman show. It may be that I’ve seen her draw on the same visual vocabulary so many times that it doesn’t seem as fresh and inventive. In addition, I prefer the intricacies of several tales woven together as in, say, her “Metamorphoses” or “The Arabian Nights.” But … and this is a big “but” … the last five minutes or so is worth the price of admission and makes everything that comes before essential viewing.