Jean-Claude van Itallie wrote The Serpent (in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater) in 1968, when anything seemed possible–especially revolution, both cultural and political. Experimental theater of the time was drunk with alternatives, eager to raise the consciousness of a young and angry generation desperate to rethink everything from the bottom up. It was also a year when a lot of dreams, right or wrong, died hard–in January, in the massive Tet offensive; in April, with the death of Martin Luther King Jr.; in May, in the streets of Paris; in June, with Robert Kennedy’s death; in July, at the Democratic convention in Chicago; and in August, in the streets of Prague. A whole new world of violence seemed to have been unleashed.
Inspired by Chaikin, van Itallie felt free to employ a host of unconventional theater techniques based on improvisation and mime. Out of this organic trial-and-error, show-and-tell process the Open actors created some potent metaphors, images that would reflect the outrageous nightmares, follies, and afflictions of “Amerika.”
Newly revived in a very disciplined staging by Live Theatre, the ambitious hour-long Serpent attempts to examine some major-league questions: Why do people kill one another? Where does evil come from? Is any claim to innocence still possible in our contaminated world?
Van Itallie’s strategy, such as it is, is to go back to the Bible. But characteristically his route is not direct. As the seven actors file in, clad in smocks, one recites a horrifying description of an autopsy accompanied by appropriate sound effects from the ensemble. This segues into a slow-motion reenactment of the JFK assassination, run both forward and backward until the violence comes to seem so ritualized it’s almost comical.
Reacting to this horror, the actors break formation, turning into frightened individuals who industriously distance themselves from evil: “I was not involved,” “I stay alive.” (Later another group offers similar testimony, also betraying a false detachment.) The Adam and Eve saga emerges from a sensuous love dance presumably depicting the pacifism of paradise (and resembling a Haight-Ashbury love-in or an excerpt from Hair). Four slithering actors create the play’s seductive title character; of course he introduces the First Couple to a lot more than sex. The terrible moment when God curses them is played in total darkness, broken only by spears of light from flailing flashlights.
An equally protracted re-creation of the first murder follows–Cain believes that, if there is “no law and no judge,” everything is permitted. Van Itallie depicts this impulse killing as an even greater loss of innocence than the expulsion from paradise: naively Cain breaks every bone in his brother’s body–and expects Abel to wake up as he always has before.
If, as one actor says, “Man created God to set limits on himself,” then judging by this play the restraint was insufficient. The Serpent ends with a tediously prolonged recitation of the interminable lineage of “begats” from the Old Testament.
At its best The Serpent reminds us of a plight we can’t escape; that we’re caught in the middle, neither as innocent as we pretend nor as guilty as association with such a foul planet suggests. So many choices have been made that we weren’t in on, and as the playwright points out most of us refuse to blame Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel. But a quarter century after the play was written much of it seems faux-naif, willfully credulous in the arrested-childhood manner that characterized my fellow hippies.
Aided by Daniel Nash’s impressive sound design, Marcia Riegel’s staging aims for more than historical reconstruction and succeeds fairly well. The energetic, harmonious ensemble perform seamlessly, transforming themselves into surgeons, the serpent, electrons bouncing like pinballs, a host of Biblical survivors, a stricken motorcade, and the wrath of God. It’s quite a workout.