When Cynthia Meier first saw “The White Snake” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she cried.
“At the end of the play, everybody was on their feet, and I was sitting in my chair sobbing,” she says. “It’s just so beautiful and so genuine.”
She resolved to bring the Mary Zimmerman play to The Rogue Theatre stage.
That was six years ago. Previews open tonight, Jan. 12.
The story: “The White Snake” is based on an ancient Chinese legend about White Snake, a snake spirit who longs to experience the world as a human for just one day. She and her companion, Green Snake, transform themselves and start their adventure. But White Snake meets a young pharmacist and falls in love. They marry and that one day becomes many. She is desperate to keep her true identity from him because, well, she’s a snake; she fears he will not love her for who she is. A savvy monk figures out her true identity and is livid at this inter-species coupling. He decides it is his job to destroy their love. “It’s very much like a fairytale,” says Meier.
The playwright: Mary Zimmerman is legendary for her stage versions of ancient literature. She has adapted such works as “The Odyssey,” “Metamorphoses,” and “Arabian Nights,” winning awards and a MacArthur Fellowship along the way.
The look: Zimmerman is also legendary for her sumptuous visual productions. The Rogue’s version is scaled back. “We don’t have the capabilities to do all the theatrical tricks.” says Meier. So they’ve improvised. “It’s the visual expression that we’ve spent the most time on,” she says. “We want to make sure the story is told visually.” That will include the use of puppets created by Tucsonan Matt Cotten, and Kabuki drops — lightweight material dropped from above the stage to create a special effect, or to reveal a new element of the play to the audience. Props play multiple roles . People carrying parasols create the image of a snake, says Meier, and a stick is an oar one moment, and the counter of a pharmacy the next.
The costumes: Meier is also the costume designer — a role she plays in many Rogue productions. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be costumer and director, but here I found it’s really helpful in thinking visually,” she says. Many of the costumes are made of silk, a luxurious material that helped Meier imagine the production, and will help to transport audiences to China — legend has it that the process for making silk is a Chinese innovation, and the material was considered so beautiful and valuable in ancient China that members of the royal family were the only ones allowed to wear it.
And in the end: What made Meier cry that day she first saw this play wasn’t just how gorgeous the production was. It was the tale. “White Snake tries to hide who she really is from her husband because she’s afraid he won’t love her anymore if he finds out,” says Meier. That’s all of us, she says. “It’s a universal story about revealing who we are to the ones we love and being accepted. So it’s not such a strange story, after all.”