The Serpent

Aerialist Morgan Barbour is guest artist and movement director for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre production of "The Serpent."

Nebraska Repertory Theatre

Morgan Barbour’s kindergarten teacher banned her from the monkey bars. The 5-year-old had spent so much time on them that her hands blistered, ripped open and bled.

As she grew older, Barbour took full advantage of the family’s trampoline, learning to do flips. She also liked to hook ropes to trees to climb them.

“Which is really dangerous,” the 25-year-old actress and movement choreographer said. “You really should not rig things to trees, but I was 12. I didn’t know that.”

When she was in fifth grade, her teacher was a retired professional clown, who incorporated circus routines into the curriculum.

“We would have juggling breaks throughout the day,” she said. “I learned how to unicycle and how to tumble and that kind of sparked an interest in circus and clowning in general.”

Then, as an undergraduate at Virginia Commonwealth University, Barbour had another clown as a movement teacher.

“He could do things with his body that I hadn’t even considered physically possible,” she said. “For part of his act, he would flip upside down and hang by his toes off a ladder.”

Then, a year and two weeks ago, Barbour took her first class in performing on a lyra, and all those years of climbing, tumbling and clowning finally came together for her inside a metal aerial hoop.

“I had this crazy revelation,” she said. “That’s pretty much what I’ve been performing on and choreographing on ever since.

“I’ve done theater my whole life. I’ve written a lot and done a lot of performance, but I’ve never felt anything click quite that much as that did. It’s been a strange, yearlong love affair.”

Which she will share with Lincoln audiences over the next three weeks. The Nebraska Repertory Theatre hired Barbour as its guest artist and movement director for its production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s groundbreaking improvisational theater piece, “The Serpent.”

Directed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater professor Wesley Broulik, “The Serpent” explores the Book of Genesis. Most of the piece is choreographed movement and pantomime -- hence Barbour’s involvement -- and includes human sounds and music made by bells, horns, whistles, tambourines and other hand-held instruments.

“I feel like it’s a piece of theater that’s unlike anything a lot of theater audiences have seen,” Barbour said. “It is very abstract. It’s not a traditional Western narrative. It doesn’t have a beginning, middle or end. But it does pull from stories and real life events that I think will resonate with audiences.”

“The Serpent” is part of the revived Rep’s season under new artistic director Andrew Park focusing on revisiting classics in new and different ways. Van Itallie wrote the performance piece in collaboration with Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater in New York City. It premiered in Rome at the Teatro del Arte on May 2, 1968. It was created to question the origins of evil and came during a volatile time in America’s history.

“When Andy asked me if I wanted to do it, I said ‘Oh golly, I guess,’” Broulik said. “I was intimidated by it, to be honest. It’s a timely and historical piece. It blew everybody away back in 1968. It’s a juggernaut of the theater landscape.”

Broulik knew he couldn’t do the piece the way Open Theater did.

“The show in 1968 was groundbreaking, but if we did it the way they did it, the audience would be bored,” he said. “We’ve moved so far since then.”

That’s why Broulik brought in Barbour. She was a student at VCU when Broulik taught there and had kept up with her career. She currently is a London-based actor, aerialist, movement director and writer. She’s finishing up her master’s degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

This past summer, Barbour worked as movement director and played the role of Puck in Broulik’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the Saratoga (New York) Shakespeare Company.

“The Serpent” will feature Barbour and other Rep actors, schooled by Barbour, on lyras.

“(The actors) have had their lives changed by this,” Broulik said. “Five weeks they hadn’t seen a lyra let alone know how to spell it. How far they’ve come in this short amount of time is amazing. Morgan is patient, giving and forgiving. She’s been wonderful to work with.”

Barbour is excited for Lincoln audiences to see the show.

“I’m calling it Cirque du Soleil light,” she said. “It’s a lot of crazy tumbling, lots of crazy acro-dance moves and lots of aerial hoops work. I feel like at the bare minimum, it’ll be a really interesting hourlong spectacle movement piece.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSjeffkorbelik.

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Features editor

Jeff Korbelik is the features editor and covers dining, performing arts, TV and local media. Follow him at @LJSjeffkorbelik.

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