The benevolent spirit known as the White Snake feels torn between earthly and supernatural life. So it’s fitting that her showdown with a villainous monk should also involve a clash between realms, with the Spirits of the Sea taking her side, and the Spirits of the Air, his.
The battle is a highlight of Constellation Theatre Company’s warm, often tangy, occasionally uneven “The White Snake” at Source, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman from Mary Zimmerman’s script. In the scene, fighting staffs jab, kicks lunge and fabrics billow as the ensemble throws itself into martial-arts-flavored choreography by Jennifer J. Hopkins. Glittery blue garb for the aquatic creatures adds gleam to Frank Labovitz’s ancient China-inspired costumes, and colorful lighting by Max Doolittle imparts a dreamlike vibe.
Not least, positioned behind the fray, musician Tom Teasley — a Constellation veteran — wizards up a propulsive soundscape in collaboration with Chao Tian, a Chinese-dulcimer virtuoso. All in all, the sequence shows off Constellation’s strong suit: crafting piquant, sensory-rich, pocket-size versions of epics.
Daniel Ettinger’s parasol-bedecked set sleekly frames this particular epic, based on a Chinese legend. After the White Snake (the graceful Eunice Bae) leaves her Taoist studies to travel to Hangzhou, accompanied by the Green Snake (Momo Nakamura, vivid and funny), she falls in love with a pharmacist’s assistant (Jacob Yeh). When the monk Fa Hai (a peppery Ryan Sellers) sets out to destroy their union, heartache ensues.
But so does humor. In one zesty device, a Chinese drama-scholar character (Andrew Quilpa) occasionally appears to deliver incongruously wonky commentary on the blocking.
The narrative momentum occasionally flags. And because many of the actors lack a polished stage presence, the proceedings sometimes have a homemade look. Would that all the scenes and performers had the energy and pizazz of the snake puppets designed by Matthew Pauli.
Constellation isn’t the only local company showcasing a trademark aesthetic: Faction of Fools Theatre Company has just unveiled another valentine to commedia dell’arte, the centuries-old street-theater form that is the troupe’s specialty. Unfortunately, unlike some of the brilliant commedia-infused riffs the company has whipped up in the past — last fall’s “Henry V,” for instance — the new venture, “The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery,” is creaky, fidgety and campy.
Written and directed by Paul Reisman, the show, staged at Gallaudet University, lampoons Agatha Christie-style whodunits, decking out the genre’s archetypes with commedia masks (by Aaron Cromie and Tara Cariaso) and stylized movement. Certain performances are quite enjoyable. Puttering around with strongbox in hand, Kelsey Painter paints a droll version of the avaricious Bernard Bottomdollar, who arrives at the Hotel MacGuffin on a dark and stormy night. Ben Lauer radiates the right farcical egoism as the Detective, and Darius Johnson exhibits spot-on comic physicality as the mysterious Gentleman.
But other performers are less poised. Moreover, the cavorting stage business of characters such as the Concierge (Colin Connor), the Maid (Tori Boutin) and the Bellhop (Kathryn Zoerb) gets tiring, and the set looks chintzy. In general, the layering of commedia onto a story that is already a spoof produces an entertainment that feels effortfully jokey. After 90 minutes at the Hotel MacGuffin, you’re glad to check out.
The White Snake, written and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Music and sound design, Tom Teasley and Chao Tian; properties design, Alexander Rothschild. With Dylan Arredondo, Linda Bard, Jennifer Knight, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla and Jordan D. Moral. About 100 minutes. Tickets: $19-$45. Through May 26 at Source, 1835 14th Street NW. 202-204-7741 or constellationtheatre.org.
The Great Commedia Hotel Murder Mystery, written and directed by Paul Reisman. Scenic design, Bridgid K. Burge; costumes, Kitt Crescenzo; lighting, Chris Curtis; music, Jesse Terrill. With Francesca Chilcote, Graham Pilato and Chukwudi Kalu. 90 minutes. Tickets: $12-$22. Through May 19 at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre, in the Elstad Annex, 800 Florida Ave NE. 800-838-3006 or factionoffools.org.