The Serpent at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Ron Sossi and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble re-visit this Obie award-winning "ceremony," a seminal work of Joseph Chaiken's Open Theatre that explores theater as ritual, 50 years later.

LOS ANGELES: Founding artistic director Ron Sossi directs a revival of The Serpent by Jean-Claude van Itallie — winner of the 1969 Obie award and arguably the most successful ensemble work ever created — Sossi previously directed the West Coast premiere 50 years ago, in 1970.

A work of experimental theater that explores the biblical Book of Genesis while comparing it to the modern experience, The Serpent remains a prime example of the innovative nature of the period. It was developed in 1968 by van Itallie in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theatre. 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 recent 1969 "Datebook" 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."

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 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."


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