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The Serpent

Ragged Wing Ensemble Soars

The aptly named Eighth Street Studios in Berkeley is a performance venue that has none of the frills of a theater; the warehouses of West Berkeley are no theater district. The entrance to the space, a cargo loading dock, opens into a lobby with the yawning emptiness of a high school gymnasium. As I paid the set designer at the folding table for my ticket to see Jean Claude Van Itallie's The Serpent, I felt more like I was attending a 9th-grade dance than a professional performance.

So it was with some skepticism that I took my seat and waited for the show to begin.
However, from the moment that the actors appeared, it became clear that the awkwardness of the space was of little import in comparison to the magnitude of their talent.

Ragged Wing Ensemble, a new Bay Area theater company, has chosen a challenging piece for its debut performance. Van Itallie's script, which interweaves stories from the Book of Genesis with vignettes from present-day life, is, according to Director Amy Sass, written as two-thirds stage directions. The paucity of written dialogue leaves much room for experimentation, and Sass's creative direction makes for a visual and aural treat.

The show, which was originally performed by the Open Theater in 1968, begins with an offering. In this version, a chorus of young women wearing spectacularly crafted Commedia Del'Arte masks hold up plates of sliced apples, silently gesturing for each audience member to partake. As we chew, the five ensemble members burst onto the stage, stomping out an energetic beat with their hands and feet and using their voices to create a collage of human sound that weaves its way in and out of the hour-long show.

The set, comprised of perpendicular black platforms that the actors climb on, jump off, and scurry around, is sparse to non-existent. The performers use their bodies to fill in the gaps: standing at intermittent heights, arms crooked, apples in hand, they form the tree in the Garden of Eden. Seconds later, the tree dissolves into a hissing serpent, three actors echoing each other in seductive whispers, imploring Eve to take a bite. Moments later the serpent falls away, and Eve is reincarnated into a modern day woman discussing her experience at a recent dinner party. These rapid changes are the life of the piece, and would be impossible to follow were it not for the clear, strong physical acting by all of the ensemble members.

The story line is not linear; much like the actors themselves it hops effortlessly back and forth between ancient and contemporary times, pondering humanity's contradictions and predicaments. In a refreshing departure from the Old Testament, the play does not blame Eve for "tempting" Adam, nor does it portray Cain as evil for murdering his brother. Rather, it suggests that Eve's curiosity and Cain's desire for approval are healthy human qualities that can spiral out of control in anyone if left unchecked.

The Serpent by Jean Claude Van Itallie
Directed by Amy Sass
Sound by Dan Zemelman
Featuring: Keith Davis, Andrea Hart, Frank Turco, Jeffrey Hoffman, and Anna Shneiderman

Jan 28th through Feb 19th
Fri and Sat 8pm
$10-$20 Sliding scale