From the very first moment of “The White Snake,” it’s clear that we’re in Mary Zimmerman Land—a magical and beguiling world that’s familiar from previous plays by this renowned Evanston director.

The White Snake” at Goodman Theatre is classic Zimmerman: an ancient story brought to life on the stage with a light, playful touch. As in her best work, there’s a sense that the actors (and their hidden collaborators—the designers) are having fun and playing a sort of game as they present this fable for our amusement.

This time, Zimmerman tells a centuries-old Chinese tale about a snake who transforms herself into human form and marries a man. The stage looks fairly simple—a bare platform with sloping bamboo walls on either side—but that’s just because these players need lots of space to play. In their hands, a large silky sheet becomes an undulating flood of water. Snakes slither across that stage, too—sometimes in the form of puppets, sometimes as a line of actors cleverly positioning umbrellas of varying sizes to create one serpent. A marvelous array of lighting tricks and artful video projections transform the wall at the back of the stage into Chinese landscapes. Seated in front of the stage, a trio of musicians deftly sets the mood and tempo with a blend of Eastern and Western sounds.

Like previous Zimmerman shows, “The White Snake” includes some self-conscious winks to the audience. At a few points, the action pauses so that we can hear brief explanations of Chinese theater’s traditions. The actors also point out that there are different versions of this old story, presenting alternative paths for the plot. And there’s a lot of humor, as the characters react to the story’s many surreal absurdities. (Tanya Thai McBride is especially delightful as the White Snake’s comic sidekick, Greenie.)

But at its heart, this is a romance between the White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke) and the good-hearted, gullible man who falls for her, Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), and it can be seen as a parable about relationships that break old cultural taboos. It’s easy to imagine other tellings of this story portraying the White Snake as an evil, seducing serpent, but Waschke appealingly plays her as a sympathetic reptile.

Amid all of its lighthearted follies and aesthetic spectacle, “The White Snake” sneaks up on you, delivering an emotional hit in its final, heart-stopping scenes.

 

The White Snake” continues through June 8 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit the theatre’s website for tickets and schedule.

Photo: Amy Kim Waschke forms the head of the White Snake, which includes ensemble members Eliza Shin, Cristofer Jean, Stephenie Sooyhun Park, Tanya Thai McBride and Lisa Tejero in “The White Snake.” Photo by Liz Lauren.

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