Odyssey Theatre’s revival of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s ensemble play, The Serpent, brings back vivid memories of my college days in the Sixties, the decade when everything changed for the worst. The bright, shining hope that John Fitzgerald Kennedy gave this teenager was shattered with his assassination. I was in my high school drama class with my girl friend when word spread. We were stunned. Some cried. And then in too quick succession came the slaughter of Martin, Bobby and Malcolm. I was with the same reconnected girl friend in my apartment watching TV when we learned of the death of Robert Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. This was the witches cauldron that was America in the Sixties, fueled by the ostinato drum beat of the war in Viet Nam. And this was the fuel that powered The Serpent then, and reminds us now of the fragility of the human condition.
When the house opens, an incoming audience is presented with a dozen actors warming up with stretches and dance movements. They are a beautiful bunch, fascinating to behold. On opening night in a ritual that is totally unique, the group gathered together and, reading from slips of paper in their hands, spoke the names of seemingly every audience member.
This fluid ensemble acts out the Kennedy assassination as revealed by the iconic Zapruder film. As they perform the scene several times, the actual fuzzy-framed film is projected upstage. To say that it is affecting doesn’t say enough. It soon becomes clear that ritual is the key to this performance, especially when the action leaps backward over the millennia to the Garden of Eden, where Eve is tempted into disobedience by a snake that is composed of five actors twining together, slithering sinuously with their arms and legs twisting together, and their serpent tongues flicking in and out of their mutual mouths. And Adam is the doufus who goes along with it.
Rooted in Genesis, the voice of God is spoken by several actors at various times. The discovery of sex is ribald and hilarious. The story of Cain and Abel is acted out in violence and pathos. The inevitable human trajectory from birth to death as experienced by women and men is funny and ultimately sad.
The stage is bare, save for a black box that is just the right height, width and length for a body to lie on. Nothing else is needed, save the excellent support of the creative team of set consultant Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang, costume designers Denise Blasor and Josh LaCour, and sound designer Christopher Moscatiello, as well as the talents of choreographer Kate Coleman and video designer Diana Cignoni. The stage is impeccably managed by Beth Mack.
Brilliantly directed by Ron Sossi, this superb ensemble—Riley Rose Critchlow, Avery Dresel-Kurtz, Joseph Gilbert, Tomoko Karina, Kristina Ladegaard, Marie Osterman, Ian Stewart Riley, Anthony Rutowicz, Keaton Shyler, Ahkei Togun, Terry Woodberry, Denise Yolén, Peyton Young—is everything an audience could wish for. This is a don’t-miss show, so don’t miss it!
The Serpent, presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in association with Isabel and Harvey Kibel, runs through May 3 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.