A couple of years ago, around the time when I was trying the phrase “magical realism Shakespeare” on for size (it fits!), playwright Bob Bartlett told me, “You should check out Constellation Theater, in DC. They are your kind of people.”
When I looked at their production history on their website, I about fell over. Every season included at least one, and often more, of the plays on my directing wishlist: Caucasian Chalk Circle, Peter and the Starcatcher, Journey to the West, The Ramayana. Many of their production photos looked like the kinds of images I stage. So I’ve been trying to get there to see something, but I’ve been in rehearsal elsewhere every time a show I was interested in was running.
We finally managed to get there last weekend to see The White Snake, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. From the moment I walked in, I was in total bliss. The set and lighting design were gorgeous–clearly communicating Chinese-ness while also having the open feeling of the platea stages I love for imaginative work.
A few minutes before the show’s official start time, two musicians (Tom Teasley and Chao Tian) entered, sat in a fenced-off area up center, and began playing a magical combination of Chinese dulcimer and percussion.
Here’s them performing another piece–I don’t think this was in the show, but it gives some idea of what they were doing:
I’m sure everyone I’ve ever worked with knows that live music is my favorite way to add texture to a show. I was already in love with this production before any actors set foot on the stage. The music continued throughout the play, adding rhythmic emphasis to a fight sequence, creating ambiance during a storm, and underscoring some of the dialogue.
The play itself is a text by Mary Zimmerman, a retelling of The White Snake, one of China’s most famous folk legends. Zimmerman does a fascinating thing with world folktales, something I often try to do with Shakespeare, where she uses the story–without resetting it or making it overtly modern–to speak to a present-day problem or experience. In this piece, she raises a lot of interesting questions about religious fundamentalism, and who gets to be in or out of God’s grace. Lady Bai, the “white snake” is a snake spirit who transforms herself into a woman, falls in love with a mortal man (Xu Xian), and helps him start his own pharmacy where her magic helps heal the sick. The abbot of the local Buddhist monastery, Fa Hai, is concerned about a snake spirit living among people, and tries to convince her husband that she’s wicked and awful. He even kidnaps Xu Xian and tries to make him become a monk to get him away from Lady Bai. Some of the language he uses to talk about her feels…let’s go with eerily familiar. Zimmerman doesn’t shy away from pulling exact phrases from the Christian fundamentalist movement and placing them in Fa Hai’s mouth. The result is a piece that speaks powerfully to modern, American concerns while being unambiguously ancient and Chinese. Shakespeare can be like this, too–one of my favorite lines from a recent review of my Richard III was, “Yet, Pigeon Creek did not have to do a single bit of modernizing or politicization to leave the audience feeling like this story has more relevancy than ever before.” The same could be said of Constellation’s White Snake.
This production was a visual feast. JC asked me, “It had puppets, silk, live music, verse, cool movement stuff, lanterns–is there anything you love that was missing?” Answer: not really. I loved some of the movement choices, particularly the epic battle between the wind spirits and the sea spirits. The wind spirits had these neat fans that had silk scarves attached to them (kind of like this), and the water spirits each had a single very long sleeve/scarf. The movement of the spirits together was both beautiful and violent. In another section, several people together with parasols made snakes, and I loved the unity of all of them moving together.
The script does a great job of balancing the deep themes of the text with some very good jokes and genuinely funny characters. There were even jokes about traditional Chinese theater, which is one of my areas of nerdery, so I was extra happy about that. I love when a playwright isn’t afraid to juxtapose humor and darkness, and Mary Zimmerman is, of course very good at that–but it takes a smart and trusting director to not try to “fix” it.
The ensemble was great, and I loved how they worked collectively. Ryan Sellers, who played Fa Hai, was chilling absolutely all the time, and Eunice Bae and Momo Nakamura, who played Lady Bai and her friend/maid Greenie had great chemistry together. Jacob Yeh, as Xu Xian, was completely lovable. I was glad that the script and the production gave him an opportunity to show the depth beneath his sweetness; by the end of the play, he is more than just a handsome face.
I have some questions stylistically about choices that they made involving the text. Through much of the play, I felt like the actors were on the surface of the text, and I wondered if they didn’t have the skill to pull on the depth of it. But in other moments, including the crucial moment between Lady Bai and her husband, when he tells her that he sees her for who she is and loves her for who she is, the text work was deeply grounded. I think the lightness of the text in other places may have been a stylistic choice, and I’d like to know more about that.
This script has one of my favorite endings. I like plays that end, in the Aristotelian fashion, with reconciliation and a path forward. When Lady Bai and Xu Xian are reunited in the afterlife, and we’ve seen their son as a grown man with his own path, that’s a satisfying ending. I had forgotten how beautiful the chorus’ text is right at the end. I don’t have my copy of the script right now (it’s on loan to someone I was hoping would hire me to direct it one of these days…hint hint), but I’m pretty sure the last line is, “Don’t be afraid. It is impossible to die alone.” In Constellation’s staging, Xu Xian was surrounded by this company of people who had traveled the entire journey with him. The beauty of his not-alone-ness was the closing image, and it was so beautiful.
I am already marking my calendar for Constellation’s next shows. Bob was right; these are my kind of people.