Theaters, like most every other entity, work hard to create their brand. From the beginning, the folks at the Rogue Theatre had a pretty clear vision about what they wanted their brand to be. If I had to name it, without reaching into their statements of purpose and articles of incorporation, I would say it is this: thoughtful plays, thoughtfully done. There's a strong cerebral nature to the Rogue's choices of plays, and that cerebral quality also guides how they conceive their onstage imagination of them.
Rogue has been true to its brand and has found a sizable audience to whom it appeals. Still, that doesn't mean the brand isn't above a too self-conscious or heavy-handed rendering.
Fortunately, the Rogues seem to know when to loosen their librarians' bun, sometimes allowing a flutter of fancy to overtake the stage. That is what we see in their luminous current production, The White Snake, by Mary Zimmerman. It's based on a Chinese myth in which the White Snake has worked for centuries to learn how she fits into the scheme of things. Perhaps her chief lesson is that her place is not in the world of men. Oh, but still she wants to see the "other side," the sights and sounds and scourges and scintillations of what—and where—she is not.
So she and a friend, although warned this was a bad idea, both come down from the mountain, the White Snake (Patty Gallagher) assuming the form and temperament of a sweet young lady and the Green Snake (Holly Griffith) assuming the role of her comic sidekick. And what do you know? Almost immediately a young man (Ryan Parker Knox) catches the White Snake's eye and his image takes up residence in her heart. Oh, that. He is a poor man with nothing, unable to believe he could make her match. Frankly, she has a few tricks up her sleeve, and although they are not always the most, um, legal ones, there appears a way that their match can be made. With his devotion and love and her devotion and special powers, a life together seems desirable, and possible. Thus begins the dual journeys of our heroes, which includes, of course, many dangers and hard—but ultimately enlightening—lessons.
In this particular account, the journey is visually beautiful. It is this aspect that delivers the most delight of the production. Utilizing the simplest of hardware, the show demonstrates the magic that is the hallmark of theater: sheets of shimmering material, large and small, colorful and breezy, become rivers and rain and the passing of time; paper umbrellas are put to both utilitarian and fanciful use; lanterns on poles create an immediate and striking impression of a celebratory gathering; Chinese characters on a scrim magically begin to glow; actors become part of a locale with a bell and a sign. Snakes are rod puppets, operated by their actor-beings, and there's a bit of a suggestion of shadow puppetry and spirit animals. Invention and whimsy create the means by which the tale delivers its import. And all of this is supported by the thoughtful music devised by Jake Sorgen, and performed by Sorgen, Karen Falkenstrom and Callie Hutchison.
The ensemble is sure-footed in various roles. David Weynand takes full advantage of the opportunity to portray the gleefully malicious holy man, Fa Hai, and Gallagher and Griffith—who lets fly her snakey humanness with delicious humor—excel as the vipers. A large part of the play's visual power rests with the scenic design and painting by Eric Jabloner and lighting design by Don Fox. Matt Cotten has lent his puppetry skills in the creation of the serpents and spirits. Director Cynthia Meier, who also designed and help construct the costumes, has fashioned a lovely and absorbing theatrical moment imbued with humor and magic.
There is much to think about as well. Those myths can throw a lot of questions and potential lessons in all directions. We are led by love beyond what we know and trust. How do our worlds intersect, and why is that intersection often times so disruptive? Can we be truly loved for who we are? Is memory more potent than death? There are also curious and playful puzzles. Is seeing believing? Or is believing seeing?
Zimmerman's play is fun and fanciful but, ultimately, not wholly satisfying. There is a measured precision in how this story unfolds, and that, and its reliance on the visual, sometimes distracts from a lack of dramatic energy. Still, Rogue brings us a brilliant visual delight, humorous and thoughtful, and celebrates richly the magical storytelling of theater. Their brand is most surely enhanced by this effort.