Designing and flowering: 'The White Snake' at Rogue Theatre | Review
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Designing and flowering: 'The White Snake' at Rogue Theatre

Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake," which is playing here in a wonderfully sumptuous production at The Rogue Theatre, is what theater people call a "design show" — a play more dependent than usual on its lights, sound, set, costume, and props to convey the story and its meaning.

For some plays, these elaborate designs are spelled out in fulsome detail through production notes and stage directions: think, on a large scale, of spectacle musicals, like the roller-skating "Starlight Express," or, on a small scale, of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which Tennessee Williams "scored" with ambient sound effects and "colored" with painterly lighting cues.

Sometimes the very lack of such notes and directions induces lavish, compensatory design plots. Take the remarkably diverse and imaginative performance history of Shakespearean drama, for which the bare, ruined choirs of the 1623 First Folio's precious few stage directions provide almost no foundation. In the deliberate strategy of playful postmodern dramas, Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" (2003), a retelling of the Greek myth set in an underworld, features (among other wonders) a chorus of stones, an elevator that becomes a (working) shower, and a room constructed (in real stage-time) out of string — and offers no explicit instructions how to realize any of this. Indeed, the script harbors the expectation that every production of the play will look and, to a certain extent, play differently.

Supported in part

Rogue is the only theater in Tucson with the intellectual, creative, and financial resources — a talented, experienced team of producers, designers, and ensemble actors, and a well-heeled, educated, neoliberal, globally oriented audience — needed to present and receive this play.

Cynthia Meier's direction and costume design, Jake Sorgen's music direction and original composition, Don Fox's lighting design, Christopher Johnson's stage management, and every cast member's performance, as well as the production itself, are, as the program constantly reiterates, "supported in part by a generous gift from" one or another of the company's many devoted benefactors.

I'm fairly certain that all these "rogues," "beguilers," and "hellcats" (the theatre's top three donor categories) must feel that they got what they paid for: a professionally crafted, beautifully mounted, beguilingly realized production of a challenging, multi-cultural, contemporary play.

Notes on design

The script of "The White Snake," "a gentle retelling of the ancient Chinese tale of a snake who comes down from the mountain to discover what it is to be human" (from Meier's "Director's Notes" in the Rogue program), begins with "A Note on the Set Design," which, along with an "Appendix" containing "Additional Notes on the Staging" of the play and numerous stage directions throughout the text, furnish many specific instructions about setting, props, lighting, and (to a lesser extent) sound and costuming.

And crucially so: like Ruhl's "Eurydice," and like much of the other dramatic and operatic work Zimmerman has directed and/or adapted, "The White Snake" is a reworking from a traditionary source of a story that can, most comfortably and profitably, be retold in today's first-world theater — where it is almost certain to be accused of being wrenched exploitatively out of its "original" cultural context — if it is recontextualized as a "designedly" postmodern spectacle. The story, reconfigured as a "polyvalent" (unstable, multi-voiced) narrative, can be, indeed, for all practical purposes, must be understood as readily adaptable to the varying circumstances of neoliberal global culture.

Zimmerman, who has a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Northwestern, where she is currently a faculty member, and who received a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 1998, is a savvy public intellectual who is well aware of the subtleties of realizing such boundary-crossing theatrical performances. The coy remark with which she begins the "Note on Set Design" — "it is not meant to be prescriptive. Many other approaches could be taken. Very little is necessary to do the play." — cleverly conceals, as it reveals, the sophisticated cultural agenda lurking just beneath its permissiveness.

Team Snake

"The White Snake" is also a director's play: Zimmerman is, in fact, better known as a director — among many other awards and significant commissions, she won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction (of her adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," another traditionary source) and has directed Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini for the Metropolitan Opera. Moreover, as assistant director Mo Zhou's "Foreword" to the published play relates, "like all Mary Zimmerman's productions," "The White Snake" "began with no script at first rehearsal and developed over time" as a collaborative effort among the cast, the designers, and the producer/presenters — "Team Snake," as Zimmerman calls them in the Dedication to the play, which premiered at the Oregon Festival in 2012.

"Yet," Mo Zhou insists, "this unique creative process is by no means sloppy. Instead it relies on thorough dramaturgical preparation and meticulous discipline," so that, "under [Zimmerman's] guidance, the play, like a flower, grows petal by petal and reaches the most stunning blossom."

This high-risk, high-reward, slowly developing collaboration is, of course, quite unusual in the history of commercial, English-language, audience-supported theater: not even Shakespeare enjoyed this kind of opportunity to guide, flower, and blossom, to function, auteur-like, as dramaturge, playwright, director, and landscape gardener.

Sure-handed stage magic

You can feel director Meier's sure hand throughout: her characteristically meticulous attention to detail; the gorgeously conceived and constructed chinoiserie costumes; the clean, efficient blocking of all that movement; the ensemble's nimble handling of the script's clever use of curtains, screens, parasols, puppets, poles, and projections as (among other things) set pieces, props, transitions, shape-shifting characters, background, and mood. The director and performers tease out (especially through Holly Griffith's charmingly insouciant portrayal of Green Snake) the script's humor and wit, with Meier setting a brisk pace for the dialogue.

The production constantly refocuses and recalibrates our attention to the way the stage is populated by multiple playing spaces, as scene partners weave through crowded streets or individuals suddenly confront the rough stage magic of the (un)natural world of this oft-told tale in an elaborately designed and directed play.

Music and lighting

The original music for the Oregon Shakespeare premiere of "The White Snake" was recorded and is available to use, but Rogue, characteristically, has developed its own musical plot scored exclusively for acoustic instrumentation (indeed, the company has never used anything but acoustic scores and sound effects).

In the program, musical director Sorgen explains how, "in preparation" for his original composition, which beautifully and effectively underscores the action and the language, "I've researched traditional Chinese musicology, though you'll hear a range of instruments from a variety of cultures," including "drums, cymbals, and sting instruments from Japan, China, and Korea plus retuned and repurposed guitars, mandolins, flutes, and fiddles."

Sorgen also composed the music for the song lyrics the script provides and the actors quite competently sing.

Fox's resplendent lighting design, a constantly changing array of color and intricately patterned gobos projected on to curtains, the back wall, and the stage itself, precisely and constructively complements and intensifies the music and the staging.

In this respect, the master electrician, Peter Bleasby, lighting programmer Tori Mays and the four men and women of the lighting crew also deserve to be recognized — as, indeed, do all the other technical contributors to a lavish production that depends so much on design (too many to list, so I'll just mention assistant director Shannon Wallace, who must have been the person primarily responsible for coordinating all of this work).

Performative styling

The acting is, as you would expect from Rogue, highly professional — well-cast, uniformly competent, no weak links, a well-rehearsed ensemble that moves easily and confidently within its own coherently created world.

Because of the script's immersion in myth and folk tale and in the conventions of traditional Asian theater (invoked ironically from time to time under the rubric "Secrets of the Chinese Drama"), the dominant ensemble acting technique is more "presentational" than is usually the case in the American theater in general and the Rogue in particular, both of which are (still) rather 'methody.'

This presentational performative styling, which severely narrows choices, suits certain actors and roles — for instance, Patty Gallagher (as White Snake, the female lead), and David Weynand (as Fa Hai, the Buddhist-priest villain of the piece) — better than others, but everybody works hard to be a useful inhabitant of the play's traditionary universe — and Ryan Parker Knox (as Xu Xian, the male lead) and, as I've already indicated, Holly Griffith (as Green Snake, in the classic comic-relief role, the hot-headed, scheming servant) manage to create somewhat nuanced characterizations.

Time and the aura

I could go on, but I won't — except to offer a disclosure and a brief conclusion. I've acted twice with Rogue, in their very first show, Jean Genet's "The Balcony," and later in Thornton's Wilder's "Our Town," and I brought their attention to a play, Peter Shaffer's "Red Noses," which they subsequently produced.

If you add Zimmerman's "White Snake" to that list, and perhaps an Ibsen, a Shaw, or a Shakespeare, you'd have something resembling a typical Rogue season: important and challenging classical, modernist, and postmodernist plays from three continents and an interesting variety of literary and theatrical traditions and practices.

This is Rogue's twelfth season in Tucson — we are fortunate to be here in the time, and the aura, of their flowering.

Correction: An earlier version of this review omitted Bill Epstein’s byline due to an editing error.

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What, where & when

  • Mary Zimmerman's 'The White Snake,' directed by Cynthia Meier
  • Jan. 12-29
  • The Rogue Theatre at The Historic Y, 300 E. University Blvd.