van Itallie (author) The Serpent / Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, directed by
Ron Sossi / the production I saw with Howard N. Fox was on March 8, 2020
me begin this review with a series of appreciations. I truly admire Ron Sossi
and all that he has done over now 50 years at the incredible Odyssey Theatre
Ensemble in, first Hollywood, and soon after, West Los Angeles. There is to my
thinking no more of an exciting company presenting US and European-born theater
classics in the city. Some of the most exciting theater works I have
experienced in this vast crucible of theatrical explorations has been at his
He’s gone everywhere, from Samuel Beckett,
Ezra Pound, Max Frisch, Bertolt Brecht, Stephen Sondheim and into this
incredible season 50th-51st season, to Irene María
Fornes, Gertrude Stein, Sam Shepard, and the upcoming Peter Nichols’ production
of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg— something you must simply bow down to.
What other theater in the US might present the great singer of French Chansons,
Julia Migenes on the very same day as Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1968 The Serpent? It
is truly astounding. Every season of the Odyssey’s schedule is exciting,
offering enticingly original productions of new and older theatrical
productions that excite me. I have praised so many of their productions that I
nearly blush, as if I were a theater hack devoted to their remarkable annual seasons..
The very thought, moreover, that he
produced, as his company’s very second production in Spring 1970, only two
years after the highly controversial late 60s production, is breath-taking. Los
Angelenos must have felt their pulses expanding with wonderment. I wish I would
have been there, the year Howard, my now husband and I, first met back in
Wisconsin. Sossi is a master at recreating experimental theater in a way few
others are in Los Angeles.
The production that Howard and I saw the
other day at the Odyssey, despite its engaging performers—among them Riley Rose
Critchlow, Avery Dresel-Kurtz, Joseph Gilbert, Kristina Ladegaard, Marie
Osterman, Anthony Rutowicz, Keaton Shyler, Ian Stewart Riley, Ahhei Togun, Terry
Woodberry, Denis Yolén, and Peyton Young—appeared, after I watched tapes of the
Chaikin-directed performances at his Open Theatre, just a bit too audience-friendly,
perhaps even a little sanitized.
For example, the tree containing the forbidden
fruit in Chaikin’s Open Theatre version was made up of only males, mostly gay it appeared,
hissing and lisping, as in their entanglement some shook their fingers between
the crotches of the others, suggesting both rather phallic images as well as
the duality of tongues with which the serpent spoke. In other scenes, the
entire company groans and moans as if suffering the hell of their own evil
Of course, the version I saw in the tape was
in a gritty black-and-white, while the Odyssey production was in muted colors,
browns, oranges, whites, and dark reds. And, unlike Sossi’s cast, Chaikin’s worked with
him for several months even before he brought in van Itallie to create a more
coherent structure and a slight narrative thrust.
In the end this work is more of a highly
ritualized collage with dance and pantomime rather than a standard play. Van
Itallie, himself, described his theater more as a ceremony that existed between
the actors on the stage and its audience.
Sossi clearly attempted to reiterate that
relationship by initially having the cast members read of out some of the names
of audience members (mine was among them), and later, after Eve gives in to the
serpentine seduction, even passing out a few apples to audience members: the
woman in front of me joyfully bit into one. Yet the Odyssey’s mostly West Side
Los Angeles audience, I believe, were not quite ready to submit, as Chaikin’s
late 60s audience might have been, to the experience of the Eucharistic sermon of
man’s evil to his own kind—which includes not only the essential Eden scene,
but the death of President Kennedy (Dresel-Kurtz plays Jackie), the shooting of
Martin Luther King (performed by Woodberry), a wild sexual orgy as the cast, freed
from their lack of knowledge, go into choreographed sexual passions, as well as
the murder of Abel by Cain (Gilbert). One woman, in our audience, was evidently
unprepared for the sexual energy released, howling loudly through the scene, as
if she had never imagined sex pantomimed on stage. Surely in 1968, no one at
the Open Theatre would have laughed out of what was clearly embarrassment.
other moments the audience seemed more contained than transformed by the
ceremonial experience the director was attempting to create. The Beckettian-like
lament—"I’m in the middle, having lost the beginning, and going to the end”—might
have been lost for some of this audience members, although it says everything
about the condition of those suddenly discovering that they are soon to die. As
a critic, I often get asked by caring and well-intentioned women and men, “What
do you think this means?”
I don’t want, however, to suggest that LA
audiences are not capable of enjoying profound theater. The more I attend this
city’s theater events, the more profoundly I am moved by their willingness to
attend and contemplate complex works, and this audience, in its sincere
applause, totally embraced van Itallie’s work.
One of the most touching moments—which I
think moved every one of us—was Cain’s remorse for having killed his beloved
brother because God had refused his sacred offerings. Just a few days earlier I
had witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s sudden remorse for her beloved Deveraux’s death
at the LAOpera. The absolute shock of what Cain has just done in this play
presents an entirely new vision of what, in the Old Testament, is simply
presented as an unforgivable crime which dooms him to an expulsion as severe as
Adam’s and Eve’s.
Even Sossi seemed to suggest his own
reservations about reviving such timely ensemble-based works.
Many of the ensemble
projects of that
time are difficult to re-create, as they
large casts and were highly personal in terms
actor input and content…unique products
time and place. …At this point we have
no idea if this “Ceremony
for Theatre” speaks
to the audience of today,
yet so many of his
themes are universal enough to make me
it has a good shot.
He argues, and think quite rightly, that
despite those reservations The Serpent was “do-able.” It is, and I truly
appreciate this director’s willingness to dig back into that history to let us
see a new vision of such an iconic work.
Angeles, March 11, 2020
from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (March 2020).