SAN DIEGO — God reputedly made the world in seven days, but that seems lazy by Mary Zimmerman's standards. She needs only a few seconds and some billowing fabric to conjure the four elements of classical mythology onto a bare stage.
Zimmerman won a Tony Award for her shape-shifting direction of "Metamorphoses," and her current offering, "The White Snake" — a sprightly theatricalization of an ancient Chinese fable, now at the Old Globe — gives her another opportunity to exercise her marvelous transformational artistry.
The tale, which Zimmerman adapted herself, relates the story of two very learned snakes cloistered on a mountaintop for centuries. Bored by the rigors of their meditative life and the pursuit of transcendence, they begin to imagine the world occupied by those sensual two-legged creatures below who get to enjoy all that "music and fine food and wine," to say nothing of romance.
Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), the more impetuous of the two, talks White Snake (Amy Kim Waschke), the more spiritually evolved, into taking a one-day furlough. But time is a slippery business for reptiles that never seem to grow old.
Once transformed into a beautiful woman, White Snake falls in love with Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider), a man of humble origins who shows her kindness. This prompts a change in plans: A house in the village is found — the mountaintop can wait.
Green Snake, transfigured into White Snake's game-for-anything lady-in-waiting, employs her not exactly subtle powers of persuasion to get her mistress and Xu Xian married on the spot. She also secures funds, operating with snakelike slyness here, so that they can open a pharmacy to provide employment for the groom.
This business, aided by White Snake's vast learning and witchery, brings the couple a good deal of public attention — and with it some trouble. Fa Hai, a jealous monk (humorously played by Matt DeCaro as a kind of holy-roller good ol' boy), suspects White Snake of being a demon in disguise. He's determined to put an end to Xu Xian's marriage and eradicate this trumped-up threat to "Buddha's Country."
Zimmerman's cast members take turns serving as narrators, fast-forwarding the dramatized story and calling attention to variants of the tale. Lightly philosophical, "The White Snake" meditates on the way love challenges us to accept not only the reality of another person but also the imperfections of ourselves in a world in which no pleasure is eternal, no happiness impervious to change.
The production is set aloft by Andre Pluess' original music, performed by a small pit orchestra costumed in the jaunty manner of a Renaissance fair. The music, at once Eastern and Western, antique and modern, creates a universe locatable only in the realm of fiction.
The scenography is beautiful but never attention-grabbing for its own stake. Snake tails poke through dresses, tidal waves arrive with furious silks. Zimmerman's dreamy art is one of subtraction, and Daniel Ostling's scenic design, T.J. Gerckens' lighting and Mara Blumenfeld's costumes are coordinated to entice fantasy rather than to substitute for it.
There's a populist quality to "The White Snake," which wants to delight spectators both visually and aurally without placing too many demands on them. The acting is accessible, never austere. Clownishness is welcome.
The bond between Waschke's White Snake and McBride's Green Snake evokes not just the master-servant relationship of classic stage comedy but also the madcap rapport of such female buddy sitcoms as "I Love Lucy" and "Laverne & Shirley." Schneider's Xu Xian is the archetypal underdog whose essential goodness keeps him safe despite his clumsiness in a treacherous universe.
Entertainment — that sometimes forgotten old value — is the name of the game.
This is not the approach that Robert Wilson, another purveyor of magnificent theatrical images, would likely have taken with this tale. Wilson's imagery at its best forces us into a new relationship to time, revoking old patterns of seeing and demanding a shift in consciousness.
Both aesthetics have their validity. Zimmerman, to her fable-loving credit, intermixes the sunshiny amusement with a sufficient number of truth-bearing storm clouds. If "The White Snake" is ultimately evanescent in its impact, it is still a pleasure to experience in the moment. The collective smile of happy theatergoers is nothing to sneeze at.