The National Theatre of China’s “Green Snake” begins with a dignified ceremony as monks march through the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, taking the stage for a somber ritual.
Um, that was fake, a monk wryly explains a moment later.
That’s the dual edge that the lovely and impressive “Green Snake” rides all night. The drama, part of the center’s ongoing World Stages festival of international theater, fondly embraces folklore and formality in telling the centuries-old fable of two sister snakes experiencing love and lust as they yearn to become human.
But the show freely updates and openly questions its story as it unspools across centuries. Who, it asks, is the hero or villain? What can this ancient fable mean now? The self-awareness is up-to-the-minute, reinforced by a brief surprising coda that firmly bridges tradition and the sensibilities of today’s Chinese youth.
To Western audiences, it will appear that tradition has the upper hand, even though much of the dialogue is brisk and often surprisingly colloquial. (One of the snake sisters even refers to her “hot body.”) The performance is in Putonghua with English surtitles, and as the sisters change form and interact with human men, the sentences come at you so rapidly that it can be difficult to tear your eyes away from the basic narrative information racing across the screens.
Yet the action on stage is performed with a stateliness that generally seems rooted in long-held practices. The cast moves at right angles or in great arcs, turning sharply or rippling en masse. The staging by director Tian Qinxin sometimes verges on choreography — it’s that stylized and meticulous.
As Green Snake and her sister, White Snake, Qin Hailu and Jin Ge elegantly render everything from slithery physicality to impetuous desires that may or may not be love. (How are snakes to know?) The assured cast of 10 acts with easy wit and fully commands the stage, which is symmetrically framed by huge curtains made of slender, dangling strands of fabric creating a make-believe illusion of solid walls. The design’s colors are attractive and gentle: tan and soft blue, plus emerald green and white for the robes of the snake sisters.
It’s a pleasing eyeful, and a playful blend of old and new. The source material is a novel by “Farewell My Concubine” author Lilian Lee, and as the tale unfolds there seem to be implications that may not fully resonate with viewers here. (1924, an eventful year in Chinese history, is mentioned twice.) But the beauty, the control and the seam of contemporary charm are unmistakable.
By Tian Qinxin and An Ying, from the novel by Lilian Lee (Li Bihua). Directed by Tian Qinxin. Set design, Wang Chen; lights, Chao Yi; costumes/styling, Chan Ku-fang; composer, David Paul Jones; multimedia design, Feng Li; sound design, Zhang Ziqian. With Xin Baiqing, Dong Chang, Wu Bi, Shang Zijian, Ma Ang, Zhang Shuo, Sang Shuai and Liu Ye. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center. Tickets $29-$69. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.