Reviewed by Dan Isaac
Presented by Pan Asian Repertory at the West End Theatre in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 W. 86 St., NYC, Jan. 17-27.
In their new, high-vaulted ampitheatre, crowned by a series of wide arches on the top level—a space to die for in a church on West 86th St.—the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has just opened "The Legend of the White Snake," a charming and profoundly baffling Chinese fairy tale.
Described in the program as "Dance Theatre," "White Snake" is a stylized production with occasional dialogue. Adapted by director Lu Yu from the five-hour text performed by the Peking Opera, it lasts only an hour without intermission. Happily, the program contains a synopsis of the action.
This episodic fable begins when scholar Xu Xian (Richard Chang) frees a snake trapped under a rock, and the snake rewards him by transforming itself into a beautiful woman, White Snake (Li Yiling), who wants to protect and marry him. Upon the discovery that the scholar has unknowingly married a snake, a Taoist monk determines to break up the union and announces, "I do not approve of interspecies marriages!" The rest of the action deals with how the scholar and White Snake fare against adversity.
The action is set in the time of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644, permitting a colorful array of costumes provided by an international cultural organization.
Richard Chang as the scholar is particularly memorable for his simpatico, innocent demeanor and expressive genius. When Xu Xian boards a raft with White Snake and her 500-year-old sister Blue Snake (Li Jun), the action is marvelously mimed, and we can see and feel the turns as the boatman (Wang Fei) pushes off and moves into the middle of the river.
Lu Yu, who also choreographed everything but the martial arts scenes, must be credited with returning grace and beauty to New York theatre.