Author: Amelia Zeve
L-R: Yena Han as Green Snake, Anna Saephan as White Snake, and Henry Vu as Xu Xian in The White Snake. Photo by Robert Falk
The first time I saw a theatrical adaptation of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake, it was at its 2012 world premiere the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon. I remember being dazzled by every part of it, as was the entire town—legend had it that every show was sold out, and that it was one of the most popular shows of the already wildly popular OSF season, which draws millions of people from all over the world to see its world class theater. But what is it about legend that keeps us humans constantly entertained, going back to ask questions about what we do and don’t understand? That exact question is the driving ponderance behind The White Snake, a brilliant production that unpacks fate, legend, love, friendship, religion and more, in a script brilliantly written by Mary Zimmerman. When I got the opportunity to see the story told again by ReAct Theater at 12th Avenue Arts, I jumped (or slithered) at the chance.
The script itself is an adaptation of an ancient Chinese myth, about a highly evolved white snake spirit (played by Anna Saephan) who, after thousands of years of studying the Tao, discovers the secret of turning herself into a beautiful young maiden (as well as other magical powers.) She and her best friend, a green snake spirit (played by the phenomenal Yena Han), decides to leave the magical mountain on which they both live and study, disguised as humans. With the White Snake under the alias of Lady Bai, a well-off member of the upper class, and the Green Snake as her maiden under the alias Greenie, the soar among the clouds until they find a town to land in. They make a plan to just stay and see the human world for a day- until Lady Bai sees Xu Xian, a man who her fate is inextricably coiled around, tossing a red umbrella. She uses her powers to cue a rainstorm, and he runs to her to shield her from the rain. The two meet and, suddenly, nothing is the same. A tale of love, fate, religion, and star-crossed lovers, Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake is a powerful script that demands a powerful performance to carry it’s bravado. The first time I saw it, so many years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I was blown away, unable to stop thinking about it for weeks, seeing it in my dreams for years. And seeing it done so brilliantly by ReAct theater was no different for me.
Although the stage design was simple, The White Snake cleverly used props, costumes, sound effects and narration to transport you to the Chinese village in which it was set. The actors were engaged and passionate about the show, and it was apparent—the script seemed to turn from just a story to a living, breathing entity onstage. The entire cast and ensemble (which was all Asian-American for the first time since the play’s debut!) were phenomenal, but for me, Yena Han’s character of Greenie stole the show every time she was onstage. She was funny and cunning, the perfect, best friend and sidekick who saves the day whenever necessary, landing her jokes with every beat, and supporting Lady Bai and Xu Xian until the very end. On the surface, The White Snake is a play about romantic love—the persistent power of love through lifetimes, the way fate draws you back with the one you’re meant to be with. But, truly, the play is more than that, and it took me seeing it for the second time with a new cast on a new stage to realize that.
The White Snake is about love, yes, but not just romantic love. It’s about friendships too, and your chosen family—the people who you surround yourself with, who you care for and who care for you because that’s what friends do. Watching the caring interactions of Yena Han’s Greenie and Anna Saephan’s Lady Bai onsage, to me, upstaged the romantic elements of the script and showed me the window to a brand new story that I didn’t catch the first time. When the final scene unfolded and the last line of the play was uttered, the idea that my life is bigger than this lifetime and larger than everyone who my fate was tied with uncoiled in my mind, and all I could feel was thankfulness for having seen the fantastic show. It was a gorgeous retelling of an already fabulous story, creating a soft and mystical world that I was heartbroken to leave when the lights faded at the end, and I walked out, blinking, into the urban sprawl of Capitol Hill, feeling like I had been born again.
ReAct theater and the cast and crew of The White Snake created a beautiful world that the audience was lucky enough to share with them, making us laugh and making us introspective, thinking about what it means to have your fate crossed with someone- and how all forked paths of fate come back together in the end, no matter how far they stray getting to that point. Do yourself a favor, and go see The White Snake at 12th Avenue Arts- you won’t regret it. And when you walk out, the world of the play still reverberating in your mind, remember- as the cast of The White Snake promises, based on all we’ll love and ever love in this lifetime and the next, it’s impossible to die alone.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3621959. The White Snake, produced by ReAct Theater, runs through November 18th. The play is 90 minutes without intermission, and is on the main stage at 12th Avenue Arts.
AMELIA ZEVE | #Greenie Is The True MVP | KXSU Arts Reporter