Amy Kim Waschke as the title character in Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
Amy Kim Waschke as the title character in Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
(© Liz Lauren)

There's no question that Tony-winning director/adaptor Mary Zimmerman knows how to create sublimely gorgeous pictures onstage. The White Snake, her take on an ancient Chinese fable about a slithery invertebrate who takes on the form of a beautiful young woman is no exception. Herein, bolts of fluttering silk become raging rivers, floating clouds and saffron-colored disembodied souls, while watercolor washes of light provide a dramatically painterly backdrop to the adventures of White Snake and her spunky sidekick, Green Snake. With a corps of designers whom she's worked with for almost a quarter of a century, Zimmerman creates a world of haunting beauty, a place where each scene seems more intricately lovely than the one before.

But for all its dreamy, mesmerizing visuals, The White Snake is cold at its heart. The story unfurling onstage is alluring, its archetypical characters astutely defined, and its message as timely as the roaring debate over gay marriage. All of that and more makes The White Snake worth seeing. Just don't expect to be swept up heart and soul into a tale that evokes oceans of empathy.

The White Snake begins on a mountaintop as the titular magical reptile embarks on a centuries-long immersion in self-improvement. As White Snake (Amy Kim Washke) devours the lessons of the universe, she gains magical shapeshifting abilities that allow her to transform into a beautiful woman. Once firmly established as an intensely learned biped, White Snake begins a journey down from the lonesome, rugged crags and into a teeming Chinese metropolis, Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride) accompanying her as an earthy, comic sidekick.

In the kingdom of men, White Snake encounters Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), her true love (and savior from another lifetime). All is well as the lovers are swept up in connubial bliss — well, almost. Nefarious doubt in the form of a skittering, scary entity with long, ominous talons scratches at the edges of Xu Xian's consciousness. Even more threatening is Fa Hai (Matt DeCaro), a malevolent monk who sees through White Snake's human disguise and pursues the lovers with strident warnings about the evils of pairing up with somebody outside your species.

It's less than midway through The White Snake's 140 intermissionless minutes that Fa Hai begins to do his own shapeshifting: The monk doesn't change bodies, but his continual raging against allegedly unnatural couplings does definitely start to strongly evoke the rabid principles of people like Alan Keyes or Michele Bachmann. Zimmerman's China may be an exotic, mythical place, but Fai Hai's haranguing feels like it's ripped straight from the latest homophobic headlines.

If you like your fables with a tidy happily-ever-after resolution, The White Snake may well leave you a bit unsettled. But Zimmerman's refusal to send her heroes skipping hand in hand off into the Far Eastern sunset makes The White Snake poignant rather than treacly, and imbues the story with a layer of sadness that grounds the myth in reality. Persecution of those who fall outside the strictures decreed by the world's self-appointed moral guardians steeps The White Snake in sorrow, even as the lovers ultimately achieve some measure of triumph.

The real stars of The White Snake are not its principal actors, though in the title role, Washke is appropriately elegant and mysterious; DeCaro's Fai Ha rails and schemes with all the irrationally bitter bile of a closeted senator. As for McBride's Green Snake, she's fittingly spunky and a fine comic foil. But the true scene-stealers are its designers: TJ Gerckens' lighting creates a wonderland of glimmering sunbeams and turquoise twilights. Mara Blumenfeld's sumptuous costumes cover a spectrum of jades, rubies and shimmering opals in a series of kimonos that are museum-worthy. Andre Pluess' soundscape is an ethereal blend of strings and wind instruments floating over an undertow of subtle but insistent percussion. And Daniel Ostling's set fluidly transports the audience from mountain aeries to raging rivers and through ancient, bustling streets that evoke a Far East that is both beautiful and ultimately unknowable.

The White Snake dazzles the eyes and the ears in recounting a millennia-old fable with almost shockingly contemporary resonance, with characters that are more archetypal than relatable. Perhaps that's entirely appropriate for a story so focused on nonhuman creatures. But a bit more heart could have made the story of White Snake as appealing to the heart as Zimmerman's inarguably ravishing visuals are to the eye.