The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble re-envisions Jean-Claude van Itallie’s groundbreaking, Obie award-winning play, The Serpent. This unique “ceremony/celebration/exploration” that delights in life as seen through the Book of Genesis and current iconic events opens at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 23, with performances continuing through Dec. 12.
Arguably the most successful ensemble work ever created, The Serpent is a work of experimental theater that explores the biblical Book of Genesis while comparing it to the modern experience. It was developed in 1968 by van Itallie in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre, and remains a prime example of the innovative nature of the period. The playwright describes the work as “a ceremony,” while The New York Times has called it “the seminal work of The Open Theater, America's most important ensemble theatrical workshop.”
According to a 1969 “Datebook” column in the San Francisco Chronicle, “The 1960s shattered and expanded what theatrical form and structure could look like, and New York’s Open Theater was continually on the vanguard of that experimentation. Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1969 work, which the Open Theater toured internationally, dispensed with standard forms of narrative, to make theater as ritual, theater as jarring juxtaposition of images. Imagine Eve’s fall from Eden following John F. Kennedy’s assassination.”
“I felt a terrific longing for a kind of ensemble,” Chaikin said in an interview. “I wanted to play with actors, actors who felt a sensitivity for one another... In order to come to a vocabulary, we had to teach each other: we had no ambitions other than to meet and play around... Off-off Broadway's impulse was a terrific dissatisfaction with what is possible on Broadway... Off-off-Broadway is really an attack on the fourth wall. It wants to destroy the fourth-wall business.”
To that end, the play uses a technique known as “transformational acting.” None of the actors has a name or an assigned character to portray. Sometimes they step into roles, and at other times they are playing themselves.
“The Serpent is a ceremony… a ceremony for the theater,” says director Ron Sossi. “Highly representative of the bold and theatrically rich work that burst out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, eclecticism is the name of the game. Rituals, acrobatics, Greek choruses, comedy, myth, audience involvement and physical ensemble dynamics abound. The Serpent provides a provocative and magical glimpse of where we’re at as a species.”
Performances of The Serpent take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from Oct. 23 through Dec. 12. Tickets range from $32 to $37. Discounts are available at select performances for seniors, students and patrons under 30; call theater for details.
The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025. For reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.
Proof of vaccination will be required of all patrons, and masks required throughout the performance. All theater seats are available for vaccinated patrons, with physical distancing in place upon request. The Odyssey ensures that theater ventilation systems are up to the recommended standard for COVID-19 protection. Odyssey indoor spaces are sanitized before each performance, and hand sanitizer and wipes are available at all times.