THEATER RITUALIZES LIFE. Time is condensed, people's behavior is more rigorously guided by certain formulae, the actors tend to follow a proscribed order of words. Jean-Claude van Itallie '58 pushes this transformation even further in The Serpent by representing life as a kind of religious ceremony. In a series of 14 episodes, he attempts to integrate Biblical revelation with the human condition in the United States of the 1960s, and the result is visually engaging but conceptually strained.
Van Itallie molds his play around the tale of Genesis, interspersing modern-day anecdotes and events with re-enactments of chapters of the First Book. He seems to believe that the Old Testament offers an eternal guide to human psychology and the model for a vaguely cyclical interpretation of history. But the analogies he sets up are tenuous and, one suspects, carelessly thought out. The mythical and the mundane are only superficially integrated, and the serious analysis which the playwright looks to be inviting is better left untried.
The play's ritual aura is established as the actors enter, rhythmically pounding their bodies and abruptly striking poses that evoke the personae to come. There are no fixed roles in this work; the cast is an anonymous, drably clad, chameleon-like group. They are reincarnated in successive scenes, serving as specific characters, archetypal men and women, corpses, beasts, chorus or bystanders. Rudimentary identities and emotions are conveyed through pantomime and the ebb and flow of varicolored light.
Perhaps autopsy, the second scene's subject, sums up van Itallie's crude intent. The surgeon who coldly recites the method for penetrating a skull suggests the author's indirect way of probing minds. One tries to learn something about individuals after they have died, the other claims that Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, prototypes who have never lived, can teach us something about ourselves.
The play runs a gamut of themes from murder to lust to alienation and old age. Eve succumbs to the serpent's temptation in the Garden and bequeaths petty, disillusioned existences to her 20th-century daughters. Cain's allegedly unwitting murder of his brother is juxtaposed against the assassination of a president, presumably Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr., while the American public, embodied in a hysterical chorus, shirks all blame for the killings. Society is rather tritely compared to a flock of lemmings, and four women bewail the discontinuity of modern life as they clench and splay their fingers, droning: "Open. Close. Open. Close. No effort... Makes these two movements... One."
The text of The Serpent is often banal enough to make one cringe. A couple of lengthy exchanges of verbal non sequiturs, supposed articulations of existential anguish, are peppered with McKuenesque dilemmas. Someone tells of passing a friend on the street without trading any greeting--each of them feared the other had looked through instead of at him. Someone else describes a dinner party where she wanted to "scratch out the women's eyes" and "grab the men's balls"--a lame evocation of hostility made even more hokey by the gratuitous vulgarity. While couples copulate with increasing fervor and come, for what can only be a choreographic reason, together, a choral voice-over ludicrously intones the entire series of Old Testament begattings.
If one ignores the spoken script, however, the movement of and non-verbal sounds issuing from the actors are fascinating. Director Kerry Konrad has blocked the episodes gracefully, and the crew of bodies (for they are more symbols than individuals) performs with relish and coordination. The multi-headed snake projects a refreshing sense of comic glee while outwitting Eve. Transitions between scenes pose bemusing riddles as the limp, floored torsos of the actors ease into new being. One puzzles over the nature of their metamorphoses, wondering if they are stirring into yawns or anguished gapes; labored breathing or sensual sighs; pained squirming or the muscle-stretching that normally accompanies awakening; farts or animal grunts.
The orgiastic coupling (oddly, desolately devoid of kisses and confined to pawing) is the last readily intelligible episode; tedium and bewilderment follow. Van Itallie's script calls for the portrayal of labor, birth and child-raising, petering into a dance of death, but these developments aren't clear in performance.
The Serpent is flawed by its glib attempt to examine a fundamentally irreligious society through a religious haze. The lines that emerge as the play's philosophical premise--"So man created God. What for? To see limits on himself."--never become very meaningful or especially convincing. Nonetheless, on opening night one could extract a snippet, albeit strained, of still-valid revelation from the Ex's proficient production... When the cast shared apples from the Tree of Knowledge with the audience, somebody murmured amid the general crunching, "It's delicious."