‘The Serpent’ Slithers at The Odyssey

By Ernest Kearney  —  “Why?”

Whether one is leaving an exhibit of Banksy’s stenciled, naked, nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc fleeing her napalmed Vietnamese village escorted between Ronald MacDonald and Mickey Mouse, or a Diamanda Galás “Scream Opera,” or a screening of the Jordan Peele film US; the sentient audiences are asking themselves, “Why?”

“Why did the creator feel it was imperative for me to experience their creation?”

And this introspective evaluation is certainly demanded of those who attend the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre’s production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Serpent.

Staged by New York’s The Open Theatre The Serpent premiered in 1963, when the world’s stages were experiencing a global firestorm of “experimental theatre.”  Grotowski’s Poor Theatre, Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret, Ionesco, Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil and Dario Fo electrifying Europe; and in America you had the talent of Viola Spolin in Chicago, Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa, Julian Beck’s The Living Theatre in New York while Los Angeles was erupting with the inspired clowning of Bill Irwin, the magical puppetry of Bruce Schwartz with the ProVisional Theatre, Padua Hills and the Odyssey percolating just below the surface.

Van Itallie himself defined his chimerical, fusion of theatrical philosophies not as a play, but as a “ceremony” and rightly so.

At the Odyssey, Director Ron Sossi guides his ensemble down the theatrical rabbit hole of this “ceremony…”

Actors warming and stretching on the stage as the audience is entering, abruptly burst into an ecstatic motion that concludes with them gazing intently at the audience as they call out the names of some of those who comprise the theatai.

In rapid succession an emergency room thick with a desperate, if forlorn, effort –

an autopsy – conducted with a chilling clinical coldness as a human body is reverse-engineered –

“The brain,” we are told, “is cream colored.”

Dallas, Texas November 22, 1963 and three shots fired by an assassin (Kristina Ladegaard.)

John F Kennedy and his wife (Joseph Gilbert, Avery Dresel-Kurtz) the Governor and his wife (C.J. O’Toole, Tomoko Karina) restyle the 2.8 seconds of history from those seated within the Lincoln Continental.

Repeat – repeat – repeat – repeat –

The actors’ posturing shadowed by Zapruder’s 486 frames of reality (provided by video designer Diana Cignoni.)

Then another moment, Martin Luther King (Terry Woodberry) speaks and is silenced.

From the Grassy Knoll to the Lorraine Motel to Eden’s Garden.

Tragic endings are hurled in a jarring juxtaposition – of Camelot, of a dream, of paradise. 

Now Eve (Atiya Walcott) is tempted by a serpent comprised of the coiled ensemble (Peyton Young, Ian Stewart Riley, others.)

We are taken back to the first murder, done in the name of religion –

As Cain (Gilbert) slays Abel (Raymond Watanga.)

“All stories have a secret,” we are told.

Some from the stage (Elin Hampton, Carla Valentine, others) bemoan and question “why?”

But the “why” remains for the audience to resolve.

And one reason why The Serpent, and plays like it, can so captivate is that my answer may be mine alone, not yours’ nor anyone else’s.

In attempting to define the desired effect of tragedy on an audience in his Poetics, Aristotle selected a Greek medical term, katharsis, ”purgation” or “purification” which described that portion of a woman’s monthly cycle when the menstrual blood passes out of the vagina cleansing the womb preparing for the possibility of birth.

In the theatre catharsis is intended to achieve an emotional cleansing of the audience, removing a sense of terror or guilt thus preparing an individual for “rebirth.”

But catharsis is rare in today’s theatre, and it does not happen at the Odyssey.  Perhaps because Sossi and his ensemble, talented though they be, are unable to enter into that realm of “ceremony” which the play demands. 

It is a realm well lit (Chu-Hsuan Chang,) reverberating with relevance (Christopher Moscatiello,) writhing and struggling (Kate Coleman,) but it is not a realm of abandon.

Catharsis, like ecstasy, can only be achieved when we allow ourselves to be stripped down, exposed, naked.

The production at the Odyssey is crafted, intriguing theatre, but is unable to shed its skin as The Serpent must.


The Seroent

is onstage

at the

Odyssey Ensemble Theatre

October 23 – December 12, 2021

Friday & Saturday at 8pm
Sunday at 2pm

* * * *

For Tickets and Information

go to


Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

No comments


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.