In the beginning

Jobsite revives an avant-garde take on the book of Genesis

click to enlarge BEFORE THE FALL: David Valdez (Adam) and Grace Santos (Eve) in a dance sequence from Jobsite Theater's production of The Serpent. - Jobsite Theater
Jobsite Theater
BEFORE THE FALL: David Valdez (Adam) and Grace Santos (Eve) in a dance sequence from Jobsite Theater's production of The Serpent.

To find the avant-garde in American theater, you have to look back 40 years, to the 1960s. This was the time when the off-off-Broadway movement began with Joe Cino's Caffe Cino, Ellen Stewart's La Mama ETC, Al Carmines' Judson Poet's Theatre and Ralph Cook's Theatre Genesis.

In these venues, experimental theater was the rule, not the exception. Playwrights like Sam Shepard and Murray Mednick, Lanford Wilson and Jack Gelber tested the boundaries of the theatrical event, dreaming not of a transfer to Broadway but of a transformation of consciousness, a revolutionary impact on the minds of adventurous young audiences. Not much remains of those daring days besides the names of a few plays that, against the odds, made a splash: Megan Terry's Viet Rock, Gelber's The Connection, Wilson's The Madness of Lady Bright and Shepard's Mad Dog Blues. And it's not clear that the intrepid playwriting of the time much influenced later culture; looking at what's playing in New York today, it's hard to find these playwrights' progeny.

Still, some of the key texts of that time do occasionally see the light again. One of them is The Serpent, which Jean-Claude van Itallie developed with Joseph Chaikin's Open Theatre in the late '60s, and which is currently receiving a provocative revival by Jobsite Theater. This "ceremony" is nothing like fourth-wall or even Brechtian theater; instead it's a sort of ritual dance-and-dialogue examination of the first book of the Bible, interspersed with a few references to the Kennedy and King assassinations.

Acted by an eight-member cast in flowing gray shirts and loose-fitting pants, on a stage inscribed with what seems a Native American geometrical pattern, the play is ambiguous, nonlinear, both subliminal and primal. In an hour or so of tantalizing text and movement, it asks us to reconsider the most fundamental writings in the Western repertoire: Adam and Eve and the snake, Cain and Abel, the long list of "begattings." If you're not put off by the avant-garde — even the 40-year-old avant-garde — you might find this exercise refreshing and even beautiful.

But don't expect for it to "make sense" or add up to a "message;" this play aims at the unconscious, at the fount of story and sense. It's affecting, but not in any comfortable way.

The Serpent begins with the cast — Curtis Belz, Alex Crow, Jaime Giangrande, Alvin Jenkins, Caroline Jett, Christen Petitt, Grace Santos and David Valdez — huddling together, stretching, exclaiming nonsense syllables and embracing one another. Then we're off to a discussion of an autopsy on a man — presumably JFK — who's been shot in the head. I should say here that throughout the play, dialogue is shared by multiple actors, transferred from person to person, repeated or turned into a question. So it's not absolutely clear, even in this first section, who's the doctor, who's the patient, who's Kennedy's assassin and who's King's.

What is certain is that after an intense series of bell sounds punctuated by gunshots, we move into a kind of confessional, where frightened citizens try to insist that they're not implicated by the terrible events in Dallas: "I keep out of big affairs. I am not a violent man. I am very sorry, still."

Then suddenly we're in the Garden of Eden, and the snake is interrogating Eve about the local flora. The connection between this and the earlier scene is unexplained — perhaps we've moved from an instance of evil to evil's source, or maybe the transition is supposed to be counter-logical. In any case, several actors take the serpent's part and tempt curious Eve into eating the famous apple (and the cast members also come into the audience, giving away free fruit).

After Adam joins in the sin, God — played by a woman — curses the snake and the two humans, but adds a few imprecations not found in the Bible. For example, "Now shall come a separation/ Between the dreams inside your head/ And those things which you believe/ To be outside your head/ And the two shall war within you." And: "The earth shall wax old like a garment/ And be cast off by me."

Then we're back in the present, meeting characters who don't feel quite satisfied with what life offers — the result of the curse? — after which we're introduced to Cain and Abel, with an emphasis on the idea that Cain, being unacquainted with death, couldn't know the full meaning of his crime. Another return to modern times, with a slight emphasis on mortality, is perhaps the weakest section of the play; but then we're into the "begatting" section, in which the Bible's long genealogies are illustrated by most of the actors engaging in an increasingly frenzied orgy of mutual caressing.

The implication seems to be that, blessed (or cursed) with sex, humankind went nuts — that it's naked lust that drives procreation, with no other sentiments involved. Then, with a surprising choice of final song, the actors, following each other like the vertebrae of a serpent, leave the stage — but not our imaginations.

Is it satisfying? Mostly, though the end seems a little abrupt, and the early section on the assassinations might have been helpfully reprised. But what's most pleasing about The Serpent is its difference from the usual kitchen-sink dramas, with their endless parade of credible characters, dysfunctional families and prosaic arguments attempting to be "realistic." Impressively directed by Chris Holcom, The Serpent is a reminder that the theater is a wide-open field for experimentation, that anything can belong on stage, that there's a world out there undreamed-of by Ibsen and Chekhov. And the Jobsite production is almost always persuasive: Brian Smallheer's set, backed by four upright platforms, is just abstract enough to liberate our imaginations, and Katrina Stevenson's costumes, more than any other element, make for visual unity. The mostly unfamiliar music in Ami Sallee Corley's sound design is usefully portentous and, in a few cases, unsettling.

The whole thing takes only an hour; but it's constantly stimulating and even fills a need: Where else in the contemporary theater have we seen the Bible taken so seriously?

Kudos to Jobsite Theater for bringing this play back to life. Now when will they tackle van Itallie's most famous piece: the trilogy America Hurrah? And will they ever offer us an evening of one-acts from Sam Shepard's early days, when his plays were anarchic and like nothing else in the theater?

There's a whole avant-garde there, four decades past.

And much that it had to offer is still ahead of our time.

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