As you’d expect from a show that was written and directed by Mary Zimmerman, The White Snake, currently onstage at Goodman Theatre, supplies a steady stream of visual wit and wonder. In the course of the production’s 100 intermissionless minutes, we’re treated to such sights as a flotilla of miniature dragon boats, a vicious crane with a magnificent set of wings, and a rainstorm suggested by bolts of shimmering blue silk dropping from the ceiling. The titular reptile is represented at various times by a slithering cloth puppet on sticks, a train of parasols, a giant scaly thing stuffed into a cabinet, and a woman in a beautiful white robe (the sumptuous costumes were designed by Mara Blumenfeld). If you come to the theater in search of spectacle, Zimmerman doesn’t disappoint.
Trouble is, there’s not much going on beneath the dazzling surface. That’s of particular concern here, seeing as how the story has to do with false appearances and the role illusion plays in love. With Zimmerman, though, appearances are all. What you see is what you get and that’s that.
Based on an old Chinese fable, the script—which the director first staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012—tells the tale of an immortal, shapeshifting serpent who turns herself into a young woman (a too placid Amy Kim Waschke) so that she and her similarly transformed sidekick, Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride, who provides some much needed spunk), can observe the ways of humans at close range.
No sooner have they arrived in Hangzhou for a look-see than White Snake has met and fallen for an unassuming local named Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider). Before you know it, they’re married and running their own apothecary. The only threat to their happiness is an evil monk (played with gusto by Matt DeCaro), who has somehow figured out White Snake’s secret and has taken it upon himself to rescue Xu Xian from an “unnatural” romance.
In addition to applying her abundant visual imagination to the tale, Zimmerman relies on a number of narrative and theatrical devices, including multiple editorializing narrators, live musicians, and the splicing in of alternate versions of the legend. These tricks and techniques keep things fleet and fluid, though it often feels like they’re being employed to mask a lack of depth.
Xu Xian is supposed to be horrified when he finds out the truth about his wife, but horror is too ugly a feeling to fit in with Zimmerman’s picturesque vision. Consequently, the dark and anguished parts of the story feel rushed and rote, as if Zimmerman is impatient to get back to the toy boats and flickering paper lanterns. The relentlessly jokey tone of the script underscores this reluctance to confront anything dark or dangerous. As pretty as Zimmerman’s staging is, it remains remote and curiously anesthetized.
M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang’s brilliant 1988 drama now receiving a gripping revival at Court Theatre, bears a passing resemblance to Zimmerman’s play. Both take place in China, both involve transformation, and both center on a pair of lovers, one of whom is concealing a whopper of a secret.
But whereas watching The White Snake is an essentially passive experience—Zimmerman sets off the fireworks, eliciting almost unconscious oohs and ahhs—Charles Newell’s staging of Hwang’s script invites a much more active engagement from heads and hearts. Expectations are upended, assumptions questioned, and humans are revealed to be products of their time and culture yet, at the same time, irreducible as individuals.
Hwang was inspired by the hard-to-believe true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, who were convicted of spying for China in 1986. Boursicot passed sensitive information to the performer over the course of a 20-year romance—but the surprising part is that Boursicot claimed to have been unaware, during all this time, that Shi was, in fact, a man.
Drawing on these events as well as the plot of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Hwang reflects on matters of race, power, gender, and sexuality, all while managing to provide a compassionate portrait of two complicated, contradictory characters. In Hwang’s telling, the French diplomat, here named Rene Gallimard, is an ineffectual paper-pusher stationed in Beijing during the regime of Chairman Mao. Gallimard has a wife but his understanding of the opposite sex is clouded by unfulfilled desires and unrealistic fantasies.
His ideal is the sort of stereotypical Asian beauty found in Puccini’s opera—virginal, self-sacrificing, and above all submissive to bold men from the West. He finds the total package in Song Liling, a performer in the Peking opera who seems too good to be true (and is). Gallimard and Song embark on a passionate, two-decade love affair, at the end of which Gallimard learns that, in truth, the submissive woman of his dreams is neither submissive (Song has been reporting back to the communists all along) nor a woman (the concealment of which had to have been helped by some willful blindness on Gallimard’s part).
Hwang sets up a series of binary contests—East vs. West, man vs. woman, reality vs. fantasy—then slowly but surely reverses the power dynamic in each of them. But what keeps it from feeling schematic is the complexity of his characters. Gallimard’s arrogance is redeemed by the fervor of his devotion, while Song’s subterfuge is bound up with his imperiled status as a sexual outsider in a conformist society.
Newell’s staging unfolds on a concrete bunker of a set (designed by Todd Rosenthal) that suggests both the drab oppressiveness of Mao’s China and the cramped quarters of Gallimard’s cell in Paris. But in spite of the grayness of the scenery, Newell’s production is in many ways more vivid than Zimmerman’s visual smorgasbord.
This has less to do with Nathaniel Braga’s Song, who’s a bit too mannered (though his change from woman to man is pretty impressive), than with Sean Fortunato’s extraordinary performance as Gallimard. We watch him go from milquetoast functionary to studly imperialist to lovelorn laughingstock, sometimes in the course of a single flashback. Combining pathos and rage, he movingly demonstrates love’s power to transform us into something even we ourselves can’t recognize.
The White Snake Through 6/8. $25–$86. Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn. goodmantheatre.org
M. Butterfly Through 6/8. $35–$65. Court Theatre, 5535 S Ellis. courttheatre.org