Constellation Theatre conjures a fitting tale for ushering in springtime with Allison Arkell Stockman’s elegant and playful production of the classic Chinese fable The White Snake (★★★). Written by Mary Zimmerman and based on ancient folklore, The White Snake evokes history, romance, and fantasy in a story that pits the arrogance of man against the forces of nature. The learned White Snake (Eunice Bae), a serpent who has studied the ways of the universe for more than a thousand years, takes human form in order to seek further enlightenment. As wise as she is old, she might someday transcend her earthly form, and join the immortals, if she can repay a kindness to a humble man, Xu Xian (Jacob Yeh), who perhaps once saved her life.
At least that’s one fork in the road paved by Zimmerman’s nimble script. Like any oft-told tale, the White Snake legend has been interpreted in many different versions. Opting to address the audience directly, the play illustrates the varying layers of truth, or myth, that get laid onto folk tales, by expressly pointing out that this might not be the most reliable version of the White Snake. It’s certainly not the only one. This is possibly “a dream that [White Snake] forgot, and that we should remember,” we’re told.
The production occasionally feels dreamlike, fusing drama and storytelling with dance. The choreography by Jennifer J. Hopkins nicely complements the action and bits of narration recited by Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, or the exposition sung sweetly by Linda Bard embodying Doubt and Jordan D. Moral as a Boatman who carries White Snake and her excitable companion Green Snake (Momo Nakamura) along their travels. The whimsical presentation, featuring puppets designed by Matthew Pauli and props by Alexander Rothschild, sparks the imagination as much as the transporting live music composed and performed by Tom Teasley and Chao Tian (who also record as the duo Dong Xi).
The costumes and sets are equally effective, and lit in beautifully shifting hues by Max Doolittle. All the design elements suggest a rich fantasy world, where two serpents might seek knowledge and diversion, or where White Snake might fall in love with Xian, and their potential union might be threatened by the machinations of bitter monk Fa Hai (Ryan Sellers). The ensemble keeps pace with the sweeping tale, but only a few of the performers, like Sellers, capture the richness of imagination that’s achieved elsewhere through the design.
As the ostensible villain of the plot who nevertheless believes he’s doing a good deed by trying to reveal White Snake for what she is, Sellers sells the committed holy man, as well as the play’s foreboding suspense. By contrast, Yeh’s tenuous interpretation of Xian unfortunately doesn’t measure up in opposition to Fa Hai’s mettle and menace.
On the lighter side, Bae and Nakamura develop a delightful rapport performing the puppet-serpent forms of their characters. And Bae further distinguishes herself as an engaging romantic heroine opposite Yeh, while also carrying the sly sense of humor that floats through this fantasy, like White Snake and Green Snake hitching a ride on a cloud. Joining the magic serpents up in the clouds are on-point supporting players Dylan Arredondo and Andrew Quilpa, who float in and out essaying various characters.
The play’s lightness is entertaining, and the journey, though intriguingly winding, won’t tax anyone’s sensibilities or endurance. It’s a tasteful production, above all else. Maybe the presentation could have been looser, rougher around the edges, to allow whatever lessons underlie this tale to unfurl as freely as the musicians’ melodies. The writer’s wit seeps through the production, but the adventurousness of the play’s makers doesn’t much extend to the play itself.
For all the beauty put on display, the allegory only lightly rings a bell, rather than forcefully striking a chord. Being respectful of nature and other living creatures, even snakes, is the message that registers the strongest impression, but that seems a bit simplistic. Questions of love and faith are pondered fleetingly, rendering The White Snake an able comic supernatural fable about transcendence that doesn’t quite transcend. Although the Lady White Snake’s sojourn into the human world provides hearty escape, for her and for the audience, the meaning behind her story might easily slip through one’s fingers.
The White Snake runs through May 26 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $19 to $45. Call 202-204-7741, or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.