Joe Ngo, left, and Aime Donna Kelly in "The White Snake" at Center Stage.
Joe Ngo, left, and Aime Donna Kelly in "The White Snake" at Center Stage. (Richard Anderson)

Center Stage has opened its spiffy new digs with such a vigorously acted, smoothly directed and vividly designed production of Mary Zimmerman's "The White Snake" that it seems ungrateful, at the very least, to express any reservations. So let's hold off for a moment before addressing this adaptation of an ancient Chinese fable.

The most important, wonderful news is the $28 million renovation that has transformed just about everything inside and out at Center Stage.


The once-nondescript entrance gives off a beckoning vibe, leading patrons into a far more spacious and stylish lobby area. (Not sure about the carpet, though; it suggests an aggressive variant on shabby chic.)

The ground-level Pearlstone Theater remains pretty much as it was, but the totally redesigned Head Theater upstairs, where "The White Snake" is running, greatly outshines its former self. It now looks like a proper theater, not just an extra place to put on shows.

Of all the possible works to break in the upgraded Head, "The White Snake" might not make everyone's top-10 list.

Zimmerman certainly finds abundant theatricality in a story that has, in one version or another, been told in China for centuries (those multiple versions figure into the play). But compared to, say, her exquisite, multilayered adaptation of Ovid's "Metamorphoses" — given a memorable production at Washington's Arena Stage a few years ago — "The White Snake" seems slender. OK, a bit boring, too.

To be sure, there's plenty of mileage, and welcome humor, in a tale of cross-species love and the duplicitous religious leader who opposes it. But the work's life lessons tend to jump out here, rather than slither up subtly. The story, which includes a good deal of narration, starts to feel labored after a while.

I love how, in "Metamorphoses," Zimmerman eloquently reinforces the two-millennia-old message from Ovid that "All things change, but nothing dies."

I expected Zimmerman to do something similar with the equally comforting and essential point of "The White Snake." (That point comes in the very last line, which I won't spoil here, but it's a beauty). Instead, the play feels earthbound for most of its duration, more obvious than poetic. The language rarely soars.

That said, Center Stage delivers the piece with flair and charm.

Imaginative guidance from director Natsu Onoda Power assures a propulsive flow. Hana S. Kim's scenic and projection designs provide a richly atmospheric world for the large cast to animate. Nicole Wee's costumes enhance that setting to prismatic, delectable effect. And puppet designer Andrea "Dre" Moore delivers a couple of cute snakes.

Those reptilians are White Snake (Aime Donna Kelly) and her saucy pal Green Snake (Eileen Rivera), animal spirits who assume human form as lady and maid. In short order, an unsuspecting pharmacist's assistant, Xu Xian (Joe Ngo), finds himself smitten with White Snake.

Kelly's radiance and charm give the production a solid center. She has a great foil in Rivera, who dishes the wisecracks with extra snap.

Ngo's finely nuanced performance is as funny as it is touching, revealing Xu Xian's strange journey from nervous to giddy, doubtful to convinced. The stand-out actor is especially impressive in his last big scene, declaring with disarming naturalness: "Whatever world is yours, I want that world."

It takes a little too long to get to that moment in "The White Snake." But there is no shortage of diversion along the way, particularly from the villain Fa Hai, played with abundant flourish by Peter Van Wagner. A well-honed ensemble contributes greatly to the proceedings as well.

In addition to occasional song (the actors are not all born singers, but no matter), there's an instrumental score evoking multiple cultures, co-created and deftly played by an onstage quartet -- Jeff Song, Jason Kao Hwang, Joshua Ziemann and Yukio Tsuji. It provides an invaluable foundation for the tale-spinning; the music speaks tellingly, even when the text falls short.


If you go

"The White Snake" runs through March 26 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $20 to $74. Call 410-332-0033, or go to