Shifting shapes at renovated Center Stage

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Dan Collins

Aimé Donna Kelly and Eileen Rivera dazzle as different forms of animal spirits in the Chinese fable The White Snake, now playing at Center Stage. The show is the first show to unveil the theater’s $28-million renovation.
Photo by Richard Anderson

Those coming to Center Stage to see award-winning playwright Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The White Snake, an ancient Chinese fable, may expect to see dazzling lights and remarkable transformations on the Head Theater stage. But they will also be surrounded by the transformations wrought by the theater’s recent $28 million renovation.

The entrance, the lobby, the box office, the bar and café, all three theatrical venues (the Head, the Pearlstone, and now the new 99-seat “Third Space” stage) — even the restrooms — have a dramatic new look that makes theater patrons rotate 360 degrees to take it all in.

A feast for the eyes, with whimsical touches like the glowing walls featuring famous quotes from plays, the reimagined theater transports visitors to a new world of entertainment.

That’s only fitting, as The White Snake’s director Natsu Onoda Power also takes each evening’s crowd on a fantastical journey of magic, love and enlightenment.

The power of transformation

The play is based on a Chinese legend rooted in China’s oral tradition that, as the audience learns via humorous exposition, has a variety of different versions (some of which, research shows, get rather convoluted).

Zimmerman, known for her stage adaptations of Metamorphoses, The Odyssey and The Jungle Book, as well as a number of Metropolitan Opera productions, trims the tales down to focus on three main characters: the animal spirits of the White Snake (Aime Donna Kelly) and the Green Snake (Eileen Rivera), and pharmacist assistant Xu Xian (Joe Ngo).

Centuries of study have raised the White and Green Snake to near immortal status, granting them the power to change shape. Transforming themselves into a beautiful lady and her servant, Lady Bai (Bai means white) and Greenie leave their lonely mountain retreat to visit the world of humans.

In short order, Lady Bai falls in love with the highly gullible Xu Xian. Toss in some magic, a gold heist, the world’s briefest courtship, and a level of business acumen and medical knowledge beyond the ability of your average snake, and soon the three are running a highly successful drug store.

Conflict appears in the form of a powerful Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Peter Van Wagner), who suspects that there might be more to the two ladies than meets the eye. Van Wagner, whose character, complete with flowing robes and a magical staff, reminded this reviewer of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Saruman, the White Wizard, is a seemingly benevolent figure who turns out to have quite malevolent intentions.

It is Fa Hai who encourages Xu Xian to have Lady Bai, now his wife, drink realgar wine during the Duanwu Festival which, for reasons unknown to the audience, robs Lady Bai of her shape-shifting power, revealing her to be a snake — a sight so shocking, Xu Xian literally drops.

Lady Bai then begins another journey, this time to face the Stag (Damian Thompson) and the Crane, who protect a rare flower with life-giving powers. The scene where Lady Bai confronts these two animal spirits is a blast of percussion and raw power, designed to simultaneously engage yet unsettle the audience, making it clear they are entering a strange new world.

Will Xu Xian and Lady Bai live “happily ever after”? Does Fa Hai have a point that a man shouldn’t marry a snake…and father a child by it?

Is this play’s message ultimately that we are who (and what) we make ourselves out to be? Isn’t the fabric of our hearts more important than the fabric of our skin (or scales)? And once joined in love, is one ever alone…even in death?

For a story about shape-shifting snakes and pharmacy assistants, The White Snake provides much for the audience to contemplate, thus providing insights on how this tale has stood the test of time.

Actors play multiple roles

It is clear that the actors revel in their roles and, given the variety of parts many in the ensemble have to play, it’s little wonder why.

Pooya Mohseni, Lucy Lavely, Brett Messiora, Linden Tailor, Damian Thompson, Samy El-Noury, Caitlin Cisco, and others do their own “shape shifting” on stage, embracing such varied characters as Xu Xian’s relatives and their homage to the classic radio show “The Bickersons,” an immortal goddess, a slightly dim but honorable monk, townsfolk with assorted ailments, etc.

Interspersed throughout the play, the audience is given brief “chapter and verse” lessons in Chinese etiquette, such as how a host greets a guest, as well as insights into how different versions of this fable might explain why Lady Bai would fall for Xu Xian in the first place.

Costume designer Nicole Wee delivers a rainbow of silk fashions for the actors, and Andrea “Dre” Moore, the puppet designer and constructor, deserves special accolades for creating the white and green snake creatures that Kelly and Rivera manipulate so expertly.

Kudos to Center Stage’s ever-creative artistic team, which found ways to create huge rain storms, flowing rivers and boats, and a mythical landscape with little more than lights, streams of fabric, colorful umbrellas and image projection.

In The White Snake, director Natsu Onoda Power delivers a lovely, funny, touching tale — a dance of delight filled with lanterns, lights and magic — all in just two hours with a 15-minute intermission. That left attendees just enough time to enjoy the second production — the beautifully renovated Center Stage.

For more information, visit www.centerstage.org, or call the box office at (410) 332-0033.