The simplest tales can be the hardest to pull off -- in movies, on TV, but especially onstage, where the real sense of time and space makes it difficult to sustain an atmosphere of enchantment. A childlike story can all-too-readily come off as naive, fey or simply deliberately stupid.
So that's the hurdle the Goodman Theatre and director Mary Zimmerman have set themselves in staging "The White Snake," a 2,000-year-old Chinese fable that couldn't be more airy light and seemingly frivolous. The title snake god takes a womanly form, visits the city at the base of a mountain and falls in love with a man. There are, of course, obstacles -- such as she reverts to her old form if served a certain wine on the annual day of the dragon-boat races -- and a villain.
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"The White Snake"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, www.goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; also 7:30 p.m. May 18 and 27 and June 8. No 2 p.m. show May 22. Through June 8.
Running time: One hour, 38 minutes. No intermission.
Parking: Pay lots
Rating: For general audiences
Not to give anything away, but the ending is not all that satisfying. Disney will no doubt give it a more uplifting tilt when it inevitably selects it for an entry into the massive Chinese market.
Yet here's the thing. Come at "The White Snake" with skepticism. See it for the simple, unadorned story that it is. Be determined that it has nothing to offer your modern-day existence. And even so this snake may yet charm the human element in you rather than vice versa.
I went in thinking I'd rather spend an evening with Whitesnake than with "The White Snake," yet this production in the end rang my chimes. There's no better way to put it.
It's not due to the acting. The formal debut was delayed so that an injured Amy Kim Waschke could recover to reclaim the title role, and she's very good, and evocative, and twists a mean snake puppet -- never more so than when she's studying Chinese philosophy with a set of spectacles perched on her snake nose. Even in human form, she has a slithery, vulnerable way of moving her legs when prone before some authority figure, and she can certainly project grief. But that's not the key.
It's not Tanya Thai McBride either, although she has the undeniable charm of the Broadway second banana as Green Snake, who takes the human form of Greenie, White Snake's lady in waiting.
It's not Jon Norman Schneider as Xu Xian, the love interest, who has an everyman milquetoast quality. And it's certainly not Matt DeCaro as Fa Hai, who has to manage the task of making a Buddhist monk into a villain. (He makes Xu eat vegetarian!) The eunuch character in "Game of Thrones" is more threatening.
Yet somehow it all comes together with emotional resonance thanks to Zimmerman's staging and pace, full of clouds of fluttering sheets, rain that falls like blue ribbons, backstage projections that suggest the most delicate Eastern art and, best of all, a three-piece musical combo that, like the most effective movie soundtracks, never noticeably intrudes, yet always underscores the action.
The Buddhist villain never does make sense, and the humor can seem forced. "You will die at her hands," he warns Xu in telling him his wife is actually a snake god.
"Snakes don't have hands," he replies.
Yet, for the most part, when this production invests some aspect of the story with emotional meaning, it sticks, as in the way it's always pointing out that this enduring tale has forked story lines in various versions at various junctures, only to conclude: "With enough time and distance, all forking paths come to the same place."
So permit me this gambit in a rave review. I won't say how powerfully effective "The White Snake" is. Instead, I'll advise the audience to be skeptical, have doubts, snort at the simplicity. And I'll bet, in the end, it rings a Chinese gong inside you in any case.