PRINCETON, NJ – The artistic skills and imagination of Mary Zimmerman come to the fore in her smartly delivered production of “The White Snake” at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.

This ancient Chinese fable has had numerous interpretations over the years.  Zimmerman has merged a variety of myths, primarily centered on a love story.  

The fantastic plot centers on White Snake, played by Amy Kim Waschke, and Green Snake, (Tanya Thai McBride), who decide they want to enter the world of humans and discover what is beyond their known place. When this happens, White Snake meets Xu Xian (Jon Norman Schneider) and, of course, falls in love with him.

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But he has heard a tale from the Abbot of a monastery that his lovely bride-to-be is actually a snake and will deceive him.  Fa Hai, in a robust performance by Matt DeCaro, misleads the young man and later kidnaps him. But Xu Xian has actually been hesitant all along. Still, he talks White Snake into drinking a glass of wine. She knows she could turn back into a snake if she drinks it, but she does so to convince him she is actually human. But when he opens her bed chamber later in the night, there is an enormous white snake.  The effect is fantastic. A cast of 11 and three musicians on flutes, string/percussion and cello make all this happen.  McBride as the Green Snake brings exuberance and humor to her role and often keeps the plot aloft.

The special effects are dazzling, without being overdone. Emily Sophia Knapp plays a Crane, with tall, fluid neck and large wings. Gary Wingert is Canopus and the remainder of the cast plays numerous roles.

Daniel Ostling’s set design is sometimes stark, but at other times provides a lush Chinese background. In one scene, actors pull miniature oriental crafts on strings across the stage. In another scene, cast members come on stage with lanterns in preparation for a wedding. There are constant surprises in store.

Costumes by Maria Blumenfeld are exquisite and the snake designs are often subtly blended into the two actors like tails. The shifting, emotional movement of the creatures is quite amazing.

“The White Snake” is performed with no intermission and runs one hour and 40 minutes. (It could be tightened by about 10 minutes. There are several moments when the play seems to climax, then keeps going.) But the fascinating twists and turns, the staging with its sense of ancient Chinese customs, will keep you spellbound.

The play continues through Nov. 3. For tickets, call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org.