Go ahead – take the apple. 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 – as part of the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble‘s 50th Anniversary “Circa ’69” Season. Sossi previously directed the West Coast premiere exactly 50 years ago, in the spring of 1970, as the second production ever at the then brand-new Odyssey Theatre. The Serpent opens on March 7 at the Odyssey’s current home in West L.A., where performances will continue through May 3.
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.”
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 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.”
Post-pandemic Odyssey ensemble includes*
The original scheduled production closed after only three performances due to the pandemic, and reopened post-pandemic with the following cast:
Joseph Gilbert as JFK, Cain, Serpent, Ensemble,
with Avery Dresel-Kurtz, Elin Hampton, Tomoko Karina, Kristina Ladegaard, C.J. O’Toole, Ian Stewart Riley, Carla Valentine, Atiya Walcott, Raymond Watanga, Terry Woodberry, Peyton Young
Original pre-pandemic Odyssey ensemble includes*
The original pre-pandemic Odyssey ensemble includes* Riley Rose Critchlow (RocketJump/Crunchyroll’s Anime Crimes Division), Avery Dresel-Kurtz (recent graduate, Pace University), Joseph Gilbert (The Hairy Ape, directed by Stephen Berkoff at the Odyssey), Tomoko Karina (Blood, directed by Robert Allan Ackerman), Marie Osterman (recent graduate, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television), Ian Stewart Riley (recent graduate, USC), Anthony Rutowicz (Odyssey productions of Steambath and The Hairy Ape), Nina Sallinen (The Conquest of the South Pole at the Odyssey), Keaton Shyler (company member, Salty Shakespeare), Ahkei Togun (Scraps at the Matrix), Terry Woodberry (Odyssey’s Theatre in the Dark), Denise Yolén (Scraps at the Matrix) and Peyton Young (A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago).
The creative team includes set designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, lighting designer Chu-Hsuan Chang and sound designer Christopher Moscatiello. The Serpent is presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in association with Isabel and Harvey Kibel.
Jean-Claude van Itallie was a seminal force in the explosive New York off-off-Broadway theater scene in the ’60s. He was one of the original playwrights at Ellen Stewart‘s LaMama Experimental Theater Club and “Playwright-of-the Ensemble” of Joe Chaikin‘s Open Theater. Van Itallie’s over 30 works include plays on a gay theme: War and Ancient Boys; long brilliant monologues, including Struck Dumb (written with Joe Chaikin) and Bag Lady; The “Doris” plays: Almost Like Being and I’m Really Here; The Traveler (about healing); a witty love triangle titled Light, Voltaire, the Mathematician, and the King of Prussia; a farcical tragedy about Bush II called Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House; and Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not to Do It Again, a transformative ensemble play based on traditional texts with the imprimatur of van Itallie’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa. His acclaimed anti-Viet Nam war play, American Hurrah: Three Views of the USA was the watershed dramatic event of the ’60s, called “brilliant” by Harold Pinter. Van Itallie’s classic translations of Chekhov (“Chekhov, The Major Plays”, Applause Books), prized by directors and actors for their clarity and subtle rhythms, are possibly the most performed Chekhov versions on the American stage. An inspired teacher, van Itallie has taught playwriting and performance as well as “Writing On Your Feet” workshops at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Columbia, Middlebury, U of Colorado, Naropa, Esalen, Omega, NY Open Center, Shantigar and many other places. He’s the author of “The Playwright’s Workbook” (Applause Books). Van Itallie’s newest book, “Tea with Demons, Games of Transformation” (Haley’s), is an adventure into a new genre – 49 self-development games for the reader to play.
Ron Sossi founded the Odyssey Theatre in 1969 to demonstrate that experiment-oriented theater could have populist appeal and be fiscally solvent while maintaining the highest artistic standards, and he has led the company as its artistic director for its entire 50-year history. In 2013, he was honored with the LA Weekly Career Achievement Award, and is the recipient of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Margaret Harford Award for “demonstrating a continual willingness to experiment provocatively in the process of theater” as well as the LADCC’s Ron Link Award for “consistent quality of direction.” Recent Odyssey directing projects include Faith Healer, Steambath, The Dance of Death, Beckett5, My Sister, Oedipus Machina, Theatre in the Dark (LA Weekly nomination for Best Production of the Year), Way to Heaven (LA Weekly and LADCC nomination for Best Production of the Year), Adding Machine: A Musical, The Arsonists (LA Weekly nomination for Best Direction), Sliding Into Hades (LA Weekly Award for Best Production of the Year), Kafka Thing!, Far Away and The Threepenny Opera.
In 2020, the Odyssey continues to explore, produce and present works on the forefront of contemporary theater art in its three-theater complex in West Los Angeles. The 50th anniversary “Circa ’69” season is an exciting retrospective of seminal theater works that inspired the Odyssey at the time of its inception, a rich time of experimentation and exploration when the theatrical soil was fertile both here and abroad. Earlier productions in the season included Loot by Joe Orton; Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés; In Circles, a musical adaptation by Al Carmines of Gertrude Stein‘s poem “A Circular Play”; and, currently running next door in Odyssey 2, a double bill of early Sam Shepard one-acts, The Unseen Hand and Killer’s Head, directed by frequent Shepard collaborator Darrell Larson.
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.
Photo credit: Cooper Bates | PR Lucy Pollack