Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Snakes on the Brain

Humans have often created myths and legends to help explain their history and the mysteries of nature. As various primitive tribes began to develop oral histories as a means of passing the collective wisdom of their elders down to younger generations, tales of mythical gods, monsters, and miracles began to appear in many cultures. According to Wikipedia,
"Critical perspective towards magical realism stems from the Western reader's disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures. Rather than explain reality using natural or physical laws as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality 'in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.'"
The following clip describes how, in Hawaiian mythology, the rivalry between Pele (goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes) and her sister, Hiʻiaka-i-ka-poli-o-Pele ("cloud bearer cradled in the bosom of Pele" and goddess of the hula) helped to create the Big island of Hawaii.

Mythology is filled with demons, monkey kings, and shape shifters (Zeus frequently disguised himself in order to have sex with mortals). What happens when traditional myths and legends get hijacked by animators? You get something like this explanation of how the beloved Hindu godGanesha, came into being.

In his essay entitled "Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki," Matthew C. Strecher describes magical realism as "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe." It's one of the key elements of fairy tales and epics such as Homer's Odyssey or Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Christopher Moore employs magical realism to hilarious effect in many of his novels. Whether writing about whales that crave pastrami (Fluke: Or, I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings), a talking fruit bat (Island of the Sequined Love Nun), a strange yeti-like cave monster (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal) or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, Moore's fertile imagination provides many laugh-out loud moments for his readers.

In today's world of stage puppetry and digital animation, it's easy for gifted artists like Julie Taymor and Nina Paley to create bizarre fantasy worlds that appeal to anyone capable of suspending their disbelief.

Consider how Gilbert & Sullivan's Queen of the Fairies (Maureen Forrester) deals with her attraction to a mere mortal in Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri.

While organized religion relies on magical realism as a means of seducing and enchanting converts, magical realism also provides a handy fictional device with which to make bestiality cute and acceptable. Don't believe me? The next time some uber-Christian starts mouthing off about how gay marriage will inevitably lead to people wanting to marry their pets, show him this clip from Walt Disney's Fantasia and ask him to describe the genetic makeup of a centaur.

In a fictional world where gods can marry mortals, mermaids can lust after humans, and beauties can fall in love with beasts, why should anyone get upset if a snake marries a man and sets him up in business as a pharmacist?

* * * * * * * * *
What happens when a meddling Buddhist priest feels the need to butt into an otherwise happy marriage and explain to a lovesick husband why the man's wife is occasionally prone to hi-s-s-s-s-sy fits? You get Mary Zimmerman's interpretation of Madame White Snake, a classic Chinese legend which, over the years, has developed numerous permutations.

A meddling Buddhist priest named Fa Hai (Jack Willis) advises
the  white snake's husband, Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston)
(Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

First staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last summer, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is now welcoming one of its favorite directors back onto its stage with this delightful adaptation. In the following clip, Zimmerman explains the genesis of the project as production footage captures the beauty and playfulness of some of the her staging.

It's interesting to hear Zimmerman describe how The White Snake will appeal to teenage girls as a great "gal-pal" adventure. Many young girls have already embraced Stephen Schwartz's long-running musical, Wicked  (which portrays the intense friendship between the very white Glinda and the very green Elphaba) as a defining narrative of sisterhood.

Tanya Thai McBride  portrays the White Snake's
best friend, Greenie (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

Zimmerman's production, however, is all about what happens when animal spirits start to interact with humans. In a production that has been beautifully designed by Daniel Ostling (sets), Mara Blumenfeld (costumes), and Shawn Sagaday (projections), the audience is treated to a wealth of visual riches ranging from traditional Chinese costumes to animal puppets; from simple screens to a wondrous wardrobe that rises up out of the stage floor.

The white snake meets a crane (Photo by: Jenny Graham)

Throughout the performance, the ensemble does a magnificent job of storytelling which clarifies and animates a complicated Chinese tale of feminine intrigue, interspecies love, religious intervention in people's daily lives, and the complications that can ensue from substance abuse. Christopher Livingston is an appealing Xu Xian with Jack Willis as the obnoxious Buddhist priest and Tanya Thai McBride as Greenie. Amy Kim Waschke gives a fascinating performance as the human version of White Snake.

Amy Kim Waschke as White Snake (Photo by: Alessandra Mello)

With original music and sound design by Andre Pluess, this production is a delight from start to finish.  Mary Zimmerman's phenomenal imagination (spurred on by the dramatic opportunities provided to her through The White Snake's heavy use of magical realism) create a rare and rewarding theatrical experience for children of all ages.

Performances of The White Snake continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through December 23 (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer from the world premiere production being shared by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Berkeley Repertory Theatre:

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