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THEATER REVIEW: “The White Snake” at The Old Globe

Legend has it that the White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), a Chinese water spirit, was saved from death eons ago by a passing timber merchant. She’s spent the last 1700 years studying the Tao in hopes of gaining immortality. Her final requirement is to return to earth in human form to serve the merchant (reborn as a pharmacist’s assistant).

Or maybe she was just convinced to check out the action on earth by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), bored with life in the cave on the mountain they call home.

Choices like that abound in Mary Zimmerman’s stunning adaptation of a Chinese fable in “The White Snake,” playing through April 26 at The Old Globe. That’s because there are several versions of the legend.

In any case, the two snakes rename themselves. White Snake calls herself Bai Suzhen (“Lady White”), while the much earthier Green Snake settles on Greenie. And off they go, to see the world.

Bai Suzhen does meet pharmacist’s assistant Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider). In fact, they fall in love ... but love itself is questioned by the narrator, who steps in with this comment:

“ Xu Xian felt as if he had been asleep his whole life, and now suddenly was awake to reality for the first time. Love feels like that when it comes. But remember that when it goes – when love ends – we have the exact same sensation: that we have suddenly awakened back to real life, and that love was the insubstantial dream. Which is it?”

They marry, Greenie agrees to be her friend’s servant and Lady Bai and Xu Xian open their own pharmacy, where Lady Bai proves to be a gifted herbalist, able supply cures for all sorts of illnesses.

But a weed sprouts in this garden of love in the form of Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), Abbott of the Golden Monastery on the hill, who “could recite scripture, but had a villainous heart.” Jealous of her ability, Fa Hai resolves to stop Bai Suzhen, and decides to use Xu Xian. He uses Doubt, which soon begins to claw at Xu Xian (literally).

Zimmerman uses Shawn Sagady’s projections on Daniel Ostling’s minimalist set, stage right and left, yards and yards of colored cloth, puppets, umbrellas and wonderful costumes by Mara Blumenfeld to tell a visually splendid story of good and evil, trust and doubt, jealousy and acceptance. The story is accompanied by three fine musicians playing Andre Pluess’ original music on strings, gongs, winds and drums.

Waschke and McBride have played White Snake and Green Snake before, and they are terrific. White Snake can be kittenish, near-immortal or decidedly human, barking commands at Greenie. McBride’a Greenie is irresistibly hyper and down-to-earth.

Waschke’s Bai Shuzhen matches up well with Schneider’s – shall we say – less assertive Xu Xian.

Matt DeCaro’s bad guy Fa Hai is a meanie, all right, snarling “How dare she slither down the mountain and stick her snout into the affairs of humans!” But then Zimmerman gives him a line Americans will giggle at: “This is Buddha’s country!”

“The White Snake” premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, and has played in several places since. It deserves a place in the theatrical canon along with Zimmerman’s fine, Ovid-inspired “Metamorphoses.”

How does it end? Here again, the story “forks” and you can take your pick of endings. Suffice it to say that despite the 100-minute, no-intermission runtime, you will not want it to end.

The details

“The White Snake” plays through April 26 on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park in San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.