The play “The Serpent” was born in improvisation in the social cauldron of the mid-1960s. It evolved from the drama workshop scene of the era, taking shape in New York, among actors and their responses to each other, until it was deemed ready for debut in Rome on May 2, 1968.
The work has survived and is enjoying something of a revival in the 21st century. Now, it is on stage at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre in the Temple Building on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus with some current techniques and motifs.
Know that this is not a presentation for everyone. Experimental theater lovers, this is your show.
It is a movement piece, featuring the work of London-based Morgan Barbour, especially on a hanging ring known as a lyra. Overall direction is by UNL faculty member Wesley Broulik. An ensemble cast of 13 lithe dramatists, dressed in dancewear, warms up in front of the audience before launching into veritably constant motion for the one-hour piece.
The play has no less solid a foundation than the Bible’s Book of Genesis, a text that has held up well over time. And it adopts recognizable images of some comparatively contemporary icons such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to expand its scope, posing themes of persistent evil and incomprehensible violence.
In May 1968, the Tet offensive and the assassination of Martin Luther King had just occurred; Paris was about to erupt; Robert Kennedy would be killed in June; Chicago police and protesters would clash in Chicago in July; and a revolt would begin in Prague in August.
Barriers were falling in families, institutions and the arts, but not always with great results— especially in the fine arts.
Some of what felt daringly freeing in works such as “The Serpent” can seem tedious now. To be sure, much of the social content is still apt. Racism abides. Violence lives with us. We still do not know why we or others do bad things.
This show asks if it is the fault of the serpent in the garden and inevitable. Or can we straighten ourselves out with love?