Review: ‘The White Snake’ by Constellation Theatre Company

While not as spectacular as 'The Master and Margarita' or as resourceful as 'The Caucasian Chalk Circle' (two recent Constellation productions), 'The White Snake' is a memorable jaunt through ancient China.

Trained in the mystical arts, two snakes, one white and one green (puppeteered and acted by Eunice Bae and Momo Nakamura, respectively) look longingly down from their mountain top at the hustle and bustle of mortal life below. Luckily for them, shape-shifting into a convenient human form is a piece of cake. This suspension of disbelief is typical of the stories brought to life by the scrappy folks over at Constellation Theater Company, who specialize in staging conceptually grand scripts with relatively limited resources to remarkable effect. While not as spectacular as The Master and Margarita or as resourceful as last year’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (two recent Constellation productions), The White Snake is a memorable jaunt through ancient China spearheaded by mesmerizing sound design by duo Tom Teasley and Chao Tian, and a delightfully catty performance by Nakamura.

Eunice Bae and Momo Nakamura in 'The White Snake.' Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Eunice Bae and Momo Nakamura in ‘The White Snake.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The legend of the White Snake is considered one of China’s Four Great Folktales, inspiring adaptations galore, including the theatrical one by Mary Zimmerman used by Constellation in this instance. When White and Green Snake descend into the riverside valley, White Snake, (who goes by the name of Lady Bai in her human form) encounters a handsome young man of low rank, the doltish but good-hearted Xu Xian (Jacob Yeh). With Greenie’s devoted help (Green Snake’s mortal name), Lady Bai convincingly poses as a beautiful solitary heiress to attract the penniless Xian, who tentatively agrees to an expedited marriage. This would seem like a treacherous seduction, but it soon becomes clear that Xu Xian is actually the luckiest man in the world. Once a veritable nobody, Xian all of a sudden finds himself in possession of a beautiful wife, a comfortable home, a thriving business, and a baby in the works.

But doubt looms heavy over the confounded pharmacist’s assistant, represented literally by a cloaked figure (Linda Bard) who occasionally swoops in and clings to Xian’s back making spell-casting gestures as lighting designer Max Doolittle drowns the stage in poison green light. Xu Xian suffers from a crippling inferiority complex stemming from his poor upbringing. Yeh pulls off the “handsome idiot” act well, but brings little to his character beyond this caricature. Xian’s character otherwise gestures towards a class commentary that a modern production would be apt to emphasize.

The enlightened but vindictive Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Ryan Sellers), detects the two snakes’ powerful magic and goes out of his way to sabotage the happy couple; first by revealing Lady Bai’s hidden true form to the unsuspecting Xian, and later by trapping Xian in his monastery. Fa Hai’s treachery hits an all-time high in the final act, but along the way, his meddling actions are above all conduits for domestic strife and existential crisis. Is a union truly happy if it requires secrecy? What exactly is Lady Bai getting out of her earthly courtship if Xu Xian is so easily duped into doubting her love?

The melodrama unfolds at a fast pace, squeezing several crests and troughs of fantastic events (a magical resuscitation, a battle between wind and water spirits, a quest to the outer realm to find a sacred healing plant) into the play’s 100-odd minute runtime. Eunice Bae’s Lady Bai is a lovely, graceful presence matching her character’s lithe energy. This comes across particularly in the choreographed scenes, such as the before mentioned battle, and her several transformations and travels to and from other realms. Bae carries the emotional scenes with tragic airs, but her character feels flat in her blind and often inexplicable love (although this might be indebted to a problem with how her character is written).

Ultimately, Nakamura’s Greenie is the stage presence that cuts through the lulling sounds of Teasley and Tian’s Chinese musical fusions, the wisened omniscience of the play’s sober narrators, and the dreamy-eyed hopelessness of its two lovers. A fast-acting realist armed with wit and dedication to her mistress, Nakamura’s Greenie is loud, fiery, and lovable, effectively shifting the play away from full-throttle romance, and into the friendship between the two snakes – indubitably the most entertaining thread of director Allison Stockman’s production.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The White Snake runs through May 26, 2019, at Constellation Theatre Company’s residence at Source – 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20009. Tickets are available at the box office or online.

Ensemble: Dylan Arredondo, Linda Bard, Jennifer Knight, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Jordan D. Moral, Andrew Quilpa

Daniel Ettinger, Scenic Designer; Frank Labovitz, Costume Designer; Alexander Rothschild, Props Designer; Matthew Pauli, Puppet Designer; Jennifer Hopkins, Choreographer