‘White Snake’ springs to life with magic at Berkeley Rep

Courtesy PhotoDazzling: “The White Snake

The legend of “The White Snake” lives.

The ancient Chinese fable about a serpent who assumes a woman’s shape gets a mesmerizing theatrical update in the new Berkeley Repertory Theatre production written and directed by Mary Zimmerman.

In her seventh show for the company, Zimmerman emphasizes the magical, shape-shifting qualities of this timeless story of enduring love.

The White Snake, living high in the mountains of China, has studied “the way of the tao” for 1,000 years. Now she can command the weather and fly through the clouds. But she longs to join the human race.

With her servant, the faithful Green Snake, she comes off the mountain — and promptly falls in love with the handsome Xu Xian, a young pharmacy assistant who has no idea of who or what she really is.

Zimmerman, whose previous Berkeley Rep shows include “Metamorphoses” and “The Arabian Nights,” has a brilliant feel for myth and magic. Here, she creates a nonstop flow of dazzling scenes blending dance, music, puppetry and deft acting by the ensemble cast.

Framed by two leaning bamboo walls (set by Daniel Ostling) and bathed in dappled shades (lighting by T.J. Gerckens), the production is a kinetic delight.

The action moves through serene lakes, forests, ferocious storms and mountaintop monasteries. Rain falls on long silk ribbons. Shawn Sagady’s projections feature bright skies, falling leaves and painted Chinese screens that glide into view.

Andre Pluess’ intoxicating original score is performed by Michal Palzewicz (cello), Tessa Brinckman (flutes) and Ronnie Malley (strings and percussion).

Eleven actors, draped in vibrant costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, play humans, outsized animals, sages and spirits.

Amy Kim Waschke is elegant in the title role, and Christopher Livingston is endearing as her naive bridegroom.

Jack Willis snarls convincingly as Fa Hai, the villainous monk determined to break them apart (among its other attributes, the show makes a winning argument for marriage equality). Tanya Thai McBride is also a joy as the fiercely loyal Green Snake.

Zimmerman’s writing is fast-paced and often very funny, but “The White Snake” touches the heart. Like many of her previous shows, this one brings a bittersweet ending.

Love, the playwright suggests, can’t always promise fulfillment. But that’s how the best fairy tales go. It’s the journey that enchants us, regardless of the outcome.

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