Beautiful and strange, Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent is not really a play, but rather a nonlinear series of experiences meant to create a feeling of ritual. So while it feels very much a product of its time — the text was written in 1968, and the original stage motion created collaboratively in what was then a very new way by Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theater — its themes and images also work in a contemporary context, without seeming themselves dated.
Which makes it an interesting work for the Ragged Wing Ensemble, none of whom appear to have been alive yet when the piece was written, to present as their very first theatrical offering. And they do a tight and conscious job of it, considering their newness; audiences expecting freshman fumbling will be pleasantly surprised. The performers hail from such innovative training as Chicago’s Redmoon Theater and the Dell’Arte school in Northern California, one known for oversized puppets and ritual-based performance in public spaces and the other for the intensity of its physical program, and the influences show. Indeed, if the photographs of the 1968 production at Rome’s Teatro del Arte are any indication, this revival is a lot tighter and more visually cohesive than the original.
The influences are visible in the intensely physical movement as well as the haunting hag masks worn by the chorus — young women drawn from local high schools and colleges — and a fantastic oversized snake skeleton puppet that gets paraded around near the end. The staging is otherwise very spare — a few sloping black boxes, simple costumes, baskets of apples — the better to focus the audience’s attention on the rhythmic, repetitive sounds, motions, and poetic bits of text that describe different facets of van Itallie’s idea that “Anything may have been possible in the beginning, but now we’ve made the choice, and that choice excludes other possibilities. It makes those choices which are still possible fewer.”
The chorus and a cast of five act out an autopsy, the assassinations of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, Eve’s tête-à-tête with the snake (portrayed here as curiosity on the snake’s part — what will happen if someone eats an apple? I’ll make someone else do it so I can see), and other seemingly disparate moments. There is more than a hint of the acid trip here; remember that LSD had been illegal for only a year when the show was first staged, and van Itallie talks openly about the drug’s influence on his storytelling in the book version of the text. The stories are bound together with noises from feet and throats, stamps and frog calls and heartbeats, davening (a droning Jewish mode of prayer), and carefully built choreography.
The section that re-creates the assassinations is particularly gripping. Chaikin and van Itallie decided that for audiences who might not know what the part referenced, the performers would helpfully call out “Kennedy!” and “King!” Five years after Dallas, they didn’t need to do this for American audiences; forty years later they still don’t. “I’m holding … his brains … in my hands” moans the president’s wife (a radiant Anna Schneiderman, who is also one of the company’s founders) as the shooting is replayed from four different angles and she crawls out of the car again and again; it’s intense, and yet it’s also funny in an odd cathartic way.
Schneiderman returns as Eve, playing against Keith Davis’ cheerfully clueless Adam, wordlessly, joyfully convincing him to eat the apple by rubbing her face against his arm. If you have these two, of course you get those wacky sons, and here director Amy Sass has cast against type for her Cain. Pouty Jeffrey Hoffman seems too baby-faced to be a murderer, and that’s perfect. “Why did he accept your offering and not mine?” he asks plaintively, echoed endlessly by the chorus. Frank Turco, who plays Abel, is also nicely sly and sleek as one of the segments of the serpent, which is rounded out by Andrea Hart.
Ritual, ceremony, performance, stylized storytelling: whatever you want to call it, The Serpent is a solid offering from an intriguing new company that promises to add some juice to the East Bay theater scene.