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Photo by Richard Anderson, courtesy of Baltimore Center Stage

‘The White Snake’ retells ancient Chinese folktale

In an innovative new production of Mary Zimmerman’s “The White Snake,” Baltimore Center Stage takes on a time-old tale of love, acceptance and friendship set against a backdrop of magical realism. The legend of the White Snake has existed within Chinese oral tradition for thousands of years and is brought to life in a brilliant display of projection art, puppetry and fight and dance choreography, effectively creating a world of color and intensity.

Adapted from a famous Chinese fable, “The White Snake” tells the story of the title character, played by Aimé Donna Kelly and her best friend, Green Snake, planned by Eileen Rivera, as they turn into humans to see what it’s like to live on Earth. As they spend more time on Earth than they had planned White Snake falls in love with a pharmacist’s assistant and begins a life with him. Later, when an evil monk discovers White Snake’s secret identity as a spirit, she must fight to save her relationship.

Center Stage’s “White Snake” is the first production not directed by Zimmerman and Rivera, the only member of the company who has seen the play before, calls this rendering completely different – a “rotating door of things” that combines the literal with the fantastical. Rivera says the role is physically demanding – but, she said, “The role is so amazing.”

Kelly and Rivera use puppets, parasols and fans in order to portray themselves as snake spirits before transforming into humans, but even though the props are put away on Earth, the puppets do eventually return in a twist to the tale. Kelly “loves the idea of embodying fantasy” as it “forces the audience and [me] to be in another world.” Even though “White Snake” is fantasy, it does embrace many universally-acknowledged ideals, like love and happiness.

“The White Snake” bridges a cultural gap, allowing audiences to see into a different culture’s narrative history and to appreciate both the similarities and differences to their own traditions. “There are parallels [within “White Snake”] to what’s happening in our world today,” Kelly said. “It’s important for people to open their minds.” She advises theatre-goers to come see the production “without barriers up” and to be their “most awesome and open, available self.”

The aspect of multicultural representation within the play also feeds into this idea of universality. Rivera, an Asian-American actress, is delighted with both the opportunities “White Snake” provides and the prevalent themes of love throughout the show. “It’s great to use other fairy tales because it brings you into another [culture],” Rivera said. “But it’s the same lesson of tolerance.” A whirlwind of spectacle and theatrics with, as Rivera put it, “a ton of heart,” “The White Snake” is sure to amuse, enchant and inspire.

“The White Snake” will be performed in Baltimore Center Stage’s Head Theater and will run through March 26. Tickets can be purchased online or through the Box Office and cost $20 with a valid college ID.