This term’s mainstage theatre production, which opened in the Ford Center for the Fine Art’s Studio Theatre — not Harbach — yesterday evening, will be not a play but a ceremony.
A ceremony, according to director and visiting assistant professor of theatre Jeff Grace, is “a process of presenting vignettes or images to the audience and asking them to create their own meaning.” Titled The Serpent, the work creates scenes that capture moments in the lives of Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel. For Knox’s production, the script has been modified to make its themes relevant to themes of today’s modern world, such as war, violence and the assassination of former President John Kennedy.
“It asks the question, is this the world we’ve created?” said Grace.
Grace decided to produce The Serpent as early as last fall.
“I’m new here,” said Grace. “I met with students, just kind of have coffee, to see what they felt they were missing production-wise.”
Knox’s recent theatre program focuses heavily on realistic theatre, which led to Grace’s decision to stage a production that was non-realistic.
“Most of the training in our curriculum is realistic, and this isn’t realistic at all,” said Grace.
The Serpent, created and performed in conjunction with The Open Theatre, a 1960s improvisational group, was originally based heavily in movement and stylized the work as such. Although Grace originally sought actors with movement experience, the ensemble decided as a group to move away from this concept.
“We’ve made the movement much more static,” said Grace. “We’ve escalated the violence. We’ve made it more thematic heavy, more image heavy.”
The unique structure of the play means the nine-person cast, who now move physically “not …like dance movement, but stylized movement,” is not a cast so much as they are an ensemble. The production is presented as a series of short scenes rather than providing a continuous plot, which means that an actor playing Cain in one scene might be a nameless character in the next.
“[The] actors step into different images instead of characters,” said Grace. “They are themselves playing a different role in every image. It’s not their character as much as their statement and what the statement says about what it means to be human.”
Themes of humanity and its relationship to God are central features of The Serpent.
“We go with the idea, God didn’t create man, man created God within himself. We have these rules, but all we do is break them,” said Grace.
The scenery of the play also reflects human’s struggles with violence, rules and their identity. Although the ensemble begins the work on a completely empty platform, they gradually bring all the props onstage with them. At the play’s conclusion, items are scattered about in complete disarray. Grace viewed it as the earth, in between the Garden of Eden and Hell.
“We’ve created this big platform in the playing space as if it’s the world,” he said. “It’s almost as if we’re coming from the perspective of the middle.”
The Serpent employs full technical elements, including videography, despite being produced in Studio Theatre rather than Harbach. Grace had Studio Theatre specifically in mind when choosing this play.
“It works really well because it’s the type of play that works in an intimate setting,” he said. “If we were to do it in Harbach, it wouldn’t work…You choose the play based on the space. This is an experimental play. You need the audience as much as the actors.” That relationship between the audience and actors, Grace explained, would be missing in a large traditional theatre.
Grace’s only worry in producing the play was dealing with the expectations of the audience.
“We came in knowing it was different…everyone came in excited to do something different,” he said, in reference to the cast. “The challenge we’re facing now is if the audience comes in expecting to get a story and then doesn’t get a story. We’re asking them to make meaning.”
Despite this concern, Grace emphasized the themes of the production and the audience’s crucial role in interpreting the play.
“We create God,” he said. “We do the best we can with what we’re given here on earth.”