Fledgling theater troupe Ragged Wing Ensemble has plucked a triumph from a famous exercise in physical theater in their first production, Jean Claude Van Itallie’s The Serpent, originally created for The Open Theater (Joe Chaikin’s group) in New York, 1968.
True to the ensemble in their name, Ragged Wing has made a show that runs with a smooth yet ecstatic kinesis, gestures and voices falling into place, moving alongside and with each other like the pistons of a driving engine.
The breadth and depth of what they’ve accomplished with this initial sally onstage involves measuring the clean, constantly moving lines of what they’ve delineated of The Serpent against the overtones of director Amy Sass’ comment, introducing the show, that the text—a collaboration between playwright, the Open Theater company and director developed during rehearsal from Van Itallie’s scenario—is overwhelmingly one of stage directions.
It shows in the fluid staging Sass and the troupe have laid out for a story that’s “a collage” (in Sass’ words), from the miming of a firing squad to a spinal tap to look inside the skull of the victim (“the brain is cream-colored; if we press here, we get fear ... if the patient survives, she’ll live for weeks, or months—or years ... no limit to what the mind receives—or dreams”) to the JFK assassination, played and rewound and replayed from different angles (the President’s wife, reaching back to his shattered head, is Anna Schneiderman, co-founder of Ragged Wing—and production manager) while the chorus (recently masked in mournful tragic style) reacts, smiling and waving, or with horrified faces, curbside.
“I no longer live in the beginning ... I’m in the middle ... Knowing neither beginning nor end ... Going away from the beginning towards the end.” The biggest surprise of the evening is perhaps that this freely-developed, associational text then settles down into the most linear of accounts, the chapters of Genesis immediately after the creation of man and woman: the temptation and fall and the first murder, Cain and Abel.
Andrea Hart, Jeffrey Hoffman and Frank Turco form a tripartite well-oiled, provocatively hissing serpent—the title role!—insinuatingly questioning the original couple (“Is it true you may do anything in the garden you choose? Not even touch? Not touch? Why?”) until Eve gets the message and chews the fruit forbidden—and passes it on. “Then [Adam (Keith C. Davis)] began to examine his ears, eyes nose, mouth—his own mind ... He couldn’t spit out the fruit or swallow it.” Clearly, much for a contemporary audience to identify with.
The dawn of time is thus recapitulated, with ‘60s soul-searching. Man blames woman, woman the snake (who asks God, “Why did they obey me and not you?”) Adam and Eve do an athletic ballet of “original sin.” The chorus recites the generations of Genesis from great tomes—which then snap shut. “If God exists, it is through me; he’ll protect me”; Cain’s murder of Abel is, like the Kennedy assassination, played over and over as Cain’s thoughts are intoned and echoed after his sacrifice is rejected: “It occurred to Cain the that world is ruled by arbitrary force ... And it occurred to Cain to kill his brother—but it did not occur to Cain that killing his brother would cause his brother’s death.”
Saturated with schematic commentary and psychodrama, the script is more than a little faded. The fabulous aspect of these stories of origin were realized with greater artistry by some of America’s original tale-tellers: Hawthorne and Melville—and poet Emily Dickinson. All were sensitive to the antinomianism of modern moral speculations on Genesis—an adaptation of their stories would better frame the excellence of Ragged Wing’s precise energies in staging a show. Or what about that grandfather of Expressionism, and all modern “symbolic” drama, Strindberg’s Dream Play? This company could explore the expanses and intensities of such real stage poetry in depth, as well as with the brilliance they bring to the scales of The Serpent.
For the real measure of their potential is how they’ve made Van Itallie’s somewhat passé text come alive with excitement—their own brand of excitement. A young troupe, they’re nonetheless veterans of a variety of projects and of seminal physical theater troupes (from Bread and Puppet to Dell’ Arte); they’re able to pool their talents for a collective effect that’s enhanced by the expression of each individual.
The strongest image is saved till the end: after the waste of countless generations of strife is bewailed, and that old frontier number, “Wayfaring Stranger” is given a fine choral treatment, a saurian skull, ribcage, tailbones are borne out and joined together above the cast’s heads into a skeletal serpent (Sarah Samonsky, also a company founder, designed it) that glides to gasping, sighing, hissing sounds through the audience to where the masked chorus (Magi Belknap, Rose Cohen-Westbrook, Georgia Henley, Natalia Kaminska-Palarczyk, Mirit Markowitz) offer it the bundles of swaddling they’ve been holding to their breasts.
It’s the inauguration of a new theater company with much promise. Their staging reenacts much of the history of modern physical theater style (mime, pantomime, Commedia revival, etc.) without surrendering to the glib clichés too often extracted from these pioneering efforts. They deserve support—and are already finding an audience. ›