Mary Zimmerman has long been a theatrical wizard.
The Chicago-based director specializes in the magic of the imagination. She has been enchanting Bay Area audiences with her visual alchemy, a low-tech fantasia of silk, puppetry and light, since 1996 when she took our breath away with "Journey to the West."
Ever since she has spun wondrous tales of gods and monsters, myths and fables from the Tony Award-winning Ovid homage "Metamorphoses" to the formidable "Argonautika." Some of the pieces have been more powerful than others but all of them revel in Zimmerman's gift for reinventing ancient tales for postmodern ears.
If her lyrical style sometimes gives way to static tableaus, here her meditative quality perfectly complements the pulse of the narrative, an ancient Buddhist fairy tale about the nature of life and love and loss. The saga of the "Snake" first appeared in an anthology of folk stories in 981 A.D.
In "The White Snake," which runs through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Rep, she dazzles with a shimmering spectacle about two snakes who dare to cross over into the human world. The seventh Zimmerman creation to play Berkeley Rep, it's the ideal holiday fare, gorgeously-appointed and whimsical but also quite meaningful at points. If the parable doesn't quite earn the existentialism of its ending, there's not a moment in this 100-minute visual feast when the eye isn't entranced and the heart touched.
Zimmerman makes pageants out of nothing. A parasol morphs into the moon. A strip of silk writhes until it is transformed from a cloud to a river to a mountain. The images are so graceful and gradual that they slowly deepen the nature of our gaze.
Once lulled into a receptive state by this delicately glittering universe, we find ourselves more open to the stirrings of our subconscious, the little pricks of enlightenment found in the tale of a white snake.
Zimmerman has stitched the narrative together from many different versions of the lore but the journey remains the same. The white snake (a radiant Amy Kim Waschke) assumes human form and comes down from her mountain after an eternity of pure contemplation. Her redoubtable sidekick Greenie (Tanya Thai McBride) at her side, she falls fast and hard for a man, the innocent Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston). The rapture of their romance is so intoxicating that she underestimates the cunning of the evil monk Fa Hai (ACT veteran Jack Willis).
While the story itself is simple enough for children's theater, the real power of the fable lies in its metaphors. The snake is terrified she won't be loved if anyone sees her real face so she hides her true nature to her own peril. The dutiful man is so eager to follow form and obey authority that he undoes himself. The lovers are so smitten by their bliss they forget that everything comes to an end.
Beneath the fantastical adventure, the shape-shifting battles between the sea and the air, "Snake" is a primal tale about coping with the unbearable shortness of being. Perhaps that's why the legend has endured for so many generations, through so many variations. The cast often stops to show us more than one retelling of any given scene so that we hear how the myth has evolved through the ages.
As always, the snake can represent whatever we want it to, from wisdom and fertility to temptation and death. All of that context lingers tantalizingly in the shadows here.
While there's no denying the ravishing physical beauty of any Zimmeran work, the real pleasure lies in hearing the echo of the ancient in our own lives.
'the white snake'
Directed by Mary Zimmerman
Through: Dec. 23
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St, Berkeley
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $29-$99. 510-647-2949 www.berkeleyrep.org