Playwright: Mary Zimmerman. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; www.goodmantheatre.org; $25-$86. Runs through: June 8
Every culture in the universe can lay claim to tales of lovers daring to flout ancestral conventions. Whether these alliances end happily or tragically depends as much on the time or place of the storytelling as on the age of the audience and the opinions of the storytellersall making for numerous variations on the same theme. The version recounted by Mary Zimmerman is not without a central through-line to give it shape, but occasionally apprises us of dissenting accounts.
The heroine of our story is the reptile of the title, whose scholarly pursuits spur her to venture forth into the human world, accompanied by her sidekick Green Snake ( aka "Greenie" ), both disguised as attractive young ladies. There, White Snake falls for a poor but handsome youth, whomwith the assistance of the mischievous Greenie and some stolen moneyshe quickly persuades to marry her. Oooh, but their happy life and successful business is soon threatened by Fa Hai, a Sutra-thumping Buddhist monk who warns the hapless husband, "Your family is a nest of vipers," and who is not above kidnapping the disbelieving spouse, triggering a war of wizards that only true love can resolve.
Nobody does theatrical pageantry better than Zimmerman nowadays, and the production currently occupying the big stage at the Goodman is stacked high with vintage Zimmerman spectacle: expressive snake puppets that charm us immediately, dances with parasols, wedding ceremonies involving red silk bindings and rains made of blue silk streamers. Zimmerman's reliable designers contribute to the dazzle as wellscenic artist Daniel Ostling's lacquered magician's boxes and splendiferous thunderstorms, costumer Mara Blumenfeld's sumptuous gowns ( serpentine attachments optional ), and anthropomorphic stags and cranes.
Composer Andre Pluess' incidental score, which a trio of stageside musicians executes, duly enhances the action, even as his songs tend to disrupt it. At no time are the actors eclipsed, howevernot with Tanya Thai McBride's peppery Green Snake, Matt DeCaro's dogmatic Fa Hai and Amy Kim Waschke's steadfast White Snake at the vanguard of a multiethnic ensemble as supple and protean as their herpetological namesakes.
Chicago theatergoers are a jaded lot, having born witness to Zimmerman's career since her shows were often considerably lengthier than the brisk 100 minutes of this one, leading to the rise of a commodity that could be dubbed "generic Zimmerman"but for audiences new to the possibilities presented by a stage, some bodies and lots of imagination, the elation of discovery cannot be exaggerated.