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'White Snake' uncoils as inter-species stage love

TWO classics get fresh treatments: "Legend of the White Snake" is told by an Italian dramatist and "The Peony Pavilion" is staged in a living room. Michelle Zhang and Xu Wei report. Michelle Zhang.

The famous legend of the "White Snake" is about the beautiful and bizarre love between a man and a benevolent white snake sorceress, their love forbidden by the laws of heaven.

Over the years it has evolved from a horror story to a romance and has been presented as Peking and other operas, films, TV series and Japanese animation.

Now it has been turned into a dramatic, multimedia stage play by an award-winning Italian dramatist, Giacomo Ravicchio. Again it is a story of eternal love, one that transcends species barriers.

It premiered in Shanghai last week and runs through August 2 at the Shanghai Drama Arts Theater.

It is performed in Chinese with English subtitles.

Written and directed by Ravicchio, it presents the ancient Chinese legend in a modern way, making it more accessible to audiences outside China.

Based in Denmark, playwright, director, set designer and actor Ravicchio has taken his plays to more than 40 countries and attended prestigious international theater festivals. He creates theater in images full of cinematic drive and artistic lines, and integrates special audio and visual effects.

In "Legend of the White Snake," vivid, poetric visual effects of traditional Chinese paintings are projected on seven screens, creating a fairytale-like stage set. A narrator "draws" images on the screens while telling the story, a singer appears at the beginning of each episode, and actors and actresses speak in contemporary, idiomatic language.

"Visual images speak louder than words sometimes," Ravicchio explains. "The visual effects give people a more direct feeling, and help make the story more easily understood by an audience with no background knowledge."

The legend tells of a handsome young scholar Xu Xian who falls in love with a beautiful woman Bai Suzhen, who is actually a white snake demon. She has taken on human form to do good deeds. She too falls in love with him, they marry, open a medicine store and live happily.

Fahai, a sorcerer monk is strongly against the union between mortal and demon. He tries to save Xu's soul by revealing Bai's true identity in front of Xu - he sees her as a large snake in their bed. He dies of fright, but is brought back to life.

The monk then imprisons Bai in a deep well under the Leifeng Pagoda in what is today Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. There is also the Green Snake, Bai's soul sister and confidant, who transforms herself into a woman to help Bai.

In the end, however, Xu remains deeply in love with Bai even after he realizes that she's actually a snake.

After its premiere in Shanghai, the play will be taken to Europe and performed at international theater festivals.

"When I first read the story, I couldn't believe that it was actually written thousands of years ago," says Ravicchio.

"It is a wonderful story about love between two races - human and animal - which courageously reveals to us that love transcends race, sex, culture and religious differences. This thinking seems progressive even by today's standard, since certain kinds of love can still be viewed as taboos in many countries."

The director says he is deeply attracted to the character Xu Xian. "Although he's man, he's beautiful. Everybody loves beautiful things, be it a woman, a man or an object."

To him, Fahai is a frustrated lover, infatuated with beautiful Xu. "But the way he loves a person is to lock him away so that he can 'protect' him (from White Snake), which is wrong," he says.

The play's five characters are played by young actors from the Shanghai Drama Arts Center.

French composer Jerome Baur creats the music, in which he combines traditional Chinese instruments like erhu (Chinese two-string fiddle) and guzheng (zither) with electronic music and symphonic and jazz arrangements.

Date: through August 2, 7:30pm (closed on Mondays)

Venue: Shanghai Drama Arts Theater, 288 Anfu Rd

Tickets: 120-200 yuan (half price for students)

Tel: 6473-0123


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