By: Julian Duvivier ‘22, Arts and Technology Reporter 10-4-18
On Friday, October 26th and Saturday, October 27th, the Friends' Central Upper School drama program will present Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The White Snake, one of the four great folktales of ancient China. It is a story of good and evil, an epic telling of the shapeshifting White Snake (Lady Bai Suzhen), her love Xu Xian, her companion Green Snake (Greenie), and the spiteful and jealous Fa Hai. Zimmerman’s adaptations are known for being both faithful to earlier editions of the stories, as well as for bringing to the tales a unique flair and humor, enticing the audience with brilliant wit and magical spectacle. The White Snake, however, is unique among such tales. Like many ancient dramas, The White Snake has been passed down orally and through the written word. The story has been told in numerous forms, each offering great variation in story and characters, allowing the creative freedom to make a remarkable story that borrows ideas from the myriad of written, spoken, and theatrical editions.
The key changes are clever spins on the original story that alter both its tone and narrative arc in ways that make it unique among other tellings. For anyone who has read or seen some version of the story, there are surprising changes that diverge from the other stories. As is typical of this tale, many elements of both story and character are unique and greatly differ from the particulars of the other renditions.
All of this information leads one to ponder, “so what has the upper school theatre made of this?” Well, after speaking with drama and english teacher Terry Guerin, who is directing the play, what will be done in this production is pretty clear. The play will bring the wonder of its ancient fable and the majesty of modern theatre. It will feature puppets, music, and dancing with choreography similar to Zimmerman’s production. Mrs. Guerin also comments on the how the work has been going so far, reflecting, “I have enjoyed so far the work on it because everyone is really committed.”
Additionally, I talked with Veronica Feng ‘20, Xinping Xie ‘19, and Zhihao Liu ‘20, who are taking on the roles of White Snake, Greenie, and Fa Hai, respectively.
I began our discussion by inquiring about their roles in the production, starting with White Snake herself, played by Veronica. “White Snake, the main character of the folktale, is a pure and goddess-like woman who believes in true love. She has been cultivating the way for years and wishes to become immortal.” Veronica said the following about White Snake’s morals: “White Snake values integrity and believes in true love. She doesn't want to leave Xu Xian, even though she is not a human being.”
After talking with Veronica, I asked Xinping about her character, Green Snake (Greenie). Xinping explained, “I’m her sidekick.” She elaborated, saying “[White Snake] is the main character, but I drive the plot.” In Xinping’s eyes, Greenie is the centerpiece to the play. She guides the action, the humor, and the plot, enhancing the play with her dynamic personality, described by Xinping as “funny, straightforward with a temper.”
The character who most steers the narrative, however, is clearly the play’s villain, Fa Hai. In some tellings of the play, he is vengeful; in others, he is jealous; and in others, he is a sympathetic antagonist. Zhihao described Zimmerman’s interpretation of Fa Hai as a “purely evil character [who is] there to create the conflict of the play.” In the play, Fa Hai’s motives are not framed as righteous in any sense, though as Zhihao pointed out, “A human shouldn't marry a snake spirit.” Zhihao also acknowledged that parts of the story have evolved to be more suitable for a Western audience and feels that “It’s a new creation with both American and Chinese values in it.” Zhihao encouraged readers and the audience to widen their understanding of Chinese culture and feels the play may spark many people’s interest.
This notion that the play encourages the exploration of the culture of China and other Eastern Countries is maintained by Veronica and Xinping. Xinping shared, “We use Chinese music, Chinese architecture in our set, Chinese names. We also have a Chinese dance teacher coming in. She worked in a university in Beijing and at UPenn and taught us the basics of Chinese dance.” Zhihao added, “There is going to be a lot of Chinese theatre art in the play. This is where the Chinese art culture is shown.” Veronica stated, “The best part [of putting on this play] is to represent Asian culture in this school. It is an opportunity to present Asian culture to people through a less stereotypical lens.”
The upper school’s 7:00 pm performances of The White Snake at Shallcross Hall Friday, October 26 and Saturday, October 27th are building up to be a marvelous tale, told so as to take us back into the ancient time when it was written, while simultaneously being a brilliantly devised piece of modern theatre. It will engage us in this classic, ancient, and wonderful story and give a performance unique among other school plays. A preview of the play will be performed, October 25th at 7:00 pm, so come and lose yourself in this illustrious tale.