In 1990, before she'd won her Tony Award (2002) or even her MacArthur "genius" fellowship (1996), Mary Zimmerman was the subject of a short feature by Reader contributor Justin Hayford. "I had this moment onstage a few years ago when I was supposed to be witnessing someone's death," Zimmerman told him. "There we were, all laced up in our corsets, our hair sprayed back, all that. We were trying so hard to be upset about this man's death. And I suddenly realized that it was just so fake. Without being art, without being artificial. It was nothing but effort."
That was when Zimmerman abandoned acting to become an auteur and put on shows that, as Hayford reported, communicate through "behavior and composition"—her words—rather than through traditional character and plot.
Over the quarter century or so since that aha! moment, Zimmerman has developed a language of honest theatrical artifice. Her vocabulary can be coyly idiosyncratic at times—she's particularly fond of miniature boats, walls full of drawers, and great sheets of cloth that simulate waves. It can also be precious or pat. But there's no doubting its capacity for expressiveness, not to say beauty. And in The White Snake Zimmerman speaks it with marvelous fluency and clarity. As a mature expression of her aesthetic, the current Goodman Theatre production of the piece is a masterwork.
Premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, The White Snake is based on a very old Chinese story about a snake spirit who assumes the form of a human woman, marries a genuinely human man, and is eventually unmasked by a Buddhist monk who defeats and imprisons her after an epic battle. The monk, Fa Hai, was the hero of the earliest formulations. But over time and many, many retellings the center of empathic gravity shifted to the White Snake and her impossible cross-species love.
Zimmerman takes the romantic tack too. Her White Snake is an avid self-improver who's been studying the Tao for 17 centuries, accruing such enormous spiritual power that she can defeat demons, make her own weather, fly—and, of course, manifest herself in different corporeal forms. She hasn't managed to cross over into the most sublime state of being, however, because she owes a karmic debt to the man who saved her life when she was just a wee snakelet.
As it happens, the White Snake's friend and fellow Taoist, the Green Snake, is suffering from an advanced case of shpilkes. She longs to slither down from their lonely mountain redoubt and spend a day in the human town of Hangzhou, where she can, she says, "abandon myself to worldly pleasure." The White Snake reluctantly agrees. She and the Green Snake transform for the trip into a white-gowned lady (nom de Homo sapiens: Bai Suzhen) and her antic servant, Xiaoqing, aka Greenie.
Soon after hitting town, the pair run into a sweet young pharmacist's assistant named Xu Xian. Bai doesn't realize that Xu is the reincarnation of her savior; all she knows is that she feels an intense attraction to him, which he reciprocates. In one of the several scenes that Tanya Thai McBride's Xiaoqing steals through wonderfully well-judged infusions of comic energy, the servant acts as go-between for the lovers. They're married and having a child together, deeply happy and (thanks to Bai's magic) exceptionally prosperous when Fa Hai the monk shows up to ruin everything.
It takes some doing to make a villain of Fa Hai. After all, he's right: Bai is a snake spirit living among humans under false pretenses. She hasn't divulged her true nature even to Xu, and there really is no telling what she's carrying in her womb. What's more, she uses questionable means to finance her life. And in the course of her struggle with the monk, she uses a tactic that can't help but harm innocent bystanders in great numbers.
But Zimmerman isn't dealing in simple dualities like right and wrong here. Fa Hai may be portrayed as a black-hearted, self-righteous hypocrite, but his real crime is coming between two halves of a cosmic whole: Bai and Xu. In a way, the play can be seen as an Asian version of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, the story of a young Kabbalist who works himself to death after being deprived of his betrothed, only to return in spirit form and take up residence in her body as she's about to be married off to someone else. Is that an evil thing to do? Probably. But good and evil don't figure in the realm of transcendent love.
Not that Zimmerman gets all ethereal with The White Snake. Opulent, dancerly, fluid, and funny, her production takes place on a distinctly physical plane—a consummate embodiment of the vision she shared with Justin Hayford way back in 1990. The moon is a man with a stick and a light. Doubt is a woman with long, long fingernails she drums on Xu's back. Snakes are stick puppets that skitter charmingly—and somehow, believably—across the stage. Rain comes in literal sheets from the ceiling, its sound produced by sand or seeds dropped into a bowl. A single clever mechanism by scenic designer Daniel Ostling serves as a bed, a store, a source of horror. At this stage of her career, Zimmerman has the powers of a Bai Suzhen, and the result is transcendent.