Written in the Winter of 2007/2008 after seeing the much-bruited Castellucci’s uber-violent “post-dramatic” theater. I can still smell the lasers and burning flesh. -DL
More than two thirds of the way through Romeo Castellucci’s Hey Girl!, presented at Montclair State University this February, a blank stage flat falls to the ground. Unlike the rest of the production, which is awash in the harsh sounds of deafening industrial drones and chest-pounding drums, bathed in the sights of obfuscating fog and blinding lasers, the moment is both visually simple and aurally understated. Dropping to the stage floor with a pleasant quietude, the flat flips forward just as quickly, as if pulled by invisible strings, exposing its rear side in the process. Emblazoned on the back of the flat is a facsimile of 15th-century Dutch painter Jan van Eyck’s drawing of a man wearing a turban, long held to be the first self-portrait by an artist in the Western tradition. Staring outwards, the portrait is also curiously upside down. In the flat’s original position, this trace of the painter must have been right side up, staring at the theater’s back wall, the portraitist an invisible spirit presiding over the explosive stage action. This apparently implacable image remains visible for the short remainder of the performance, and provides a clue to decoding the work, which Castellucci seems eager to either mystify or render intensely visceral, occluding a cooler, more intellectual analysis through the sensational extremes of his theatrical aesthetic. But despite his fog and drums, deeper meaning is not only hinted at, but, as with the example of van Eyck, hidden in plain view.
Indeed, Hey Girl! is a kind of portrait, a presentation of the self’s social and historical construction filtered through Castellucci’s own perceptions. That Castellucci chooses to anatomize this structure in female bodies, whom he depicts stripped naked and beaten over the course of the performance, is a feat of auteurial sleight-of-hand at once risky and naïve. An Italian visual artist – calling him a director is to pay scant attention to his Wagnerian control over all aspects of the production, from conceptualization and scriptual adaptation to designing the look of his installation-like productions and choosing ideal body-types to outline his choreographic performance structures – Castellucci’s approach to drama is painterly rather than literary, an investigation of the embodied motif rather than the abstracted idea. After studying painting and sculpture at the University of Bologna, he founded the Socìetas Raffelo Sanzio (Society of the Sainted Rafael) in 1981, with his sister Claudia (a classically trained singer), and frequent collaborator Chiara Guidi (a classically trained actress). The Socìetas’s multidisciplinary approach testifies to their diverse artistic background. In their 2001 collection of writings, Epic of Dust, the company lists as artistic brethren, “other young companions who share an interest in theater and the plastic arts.”
Sure enough, Hey Girl! opens with a series of engrossingly plastic effects, more environmental and sculptural than theatrical in any traditional sense. As the audience enters the theater auditorium shortly before the beginning of the performance, we encounter rows of seats shrouded in a dense thicket of fog. This fog, smelling faintly of sulphur, emanates outward from the yawning black cavern of the stage, which Castellucci (rather like another difficult-to-categorize artist who creates visually striking theater, Robert Wilson) has given the appearance of infinite depth. Mechanical pounding begins to sound, intensely loud yet seemingly far away, building gradually to a deafening industrial roar. A fluorescent light flickers above a corrugated metal table. Gradually intensifying, the light reveals a quivering mound of oozing, misshapen flesh. Before rational meaning can set in, the audience member is bombarded by illusion raised to a level of almost synaesthetic sensation. The grotesque puddle begins to melt, leaving threads of a flesh-like substance coiled underneath the table; a foot and eventually the fragile spine of a naked woman’s back emerge, shivering. She falls to the floor and sits, weeping softly for a few pregnant minutes. Meaning gradually coheres: we are witnessing a primeval birth, the first leg in an archetypal progress. The dramaturgy in this instance is a mapping out of Genesis-like origins, both an imitation and revision of original myth: cosmic mist presages the formation of a world, and a new generation is born out of the deformed remnants of the old.
But Castellucci just as quickly rejects a mythic structure for a more loosely allusive one that appears to imitate the grand narratives of present-day society, history, and even dramatic literature itself. Having created a striking, isolated image to begin the piece, Castellucci proceeds to move his (white) heroine, played by Silvia Costa, through a series of tableaux on a bare stage in which she embodies a series of feminine icons, all of them brutalized by patriarchal society. This section is noticeably polemical in tone and content, and at times Hey Girl! seems to descend into monolithic didacticism. Wearing a plain white t-shirt and jeans, Costa resembles a normal teenaged girl, forced to conform to contemporary notions of beauty. Her cosmetic trinkets become toxins; lipstick and Chanel No. 5, placed or poured on a cloth, explode in puffs of acrid smoke. Using the stained cloth as a cape and wielding an outsized sword, she resembles a tow-headed Joan of Arc, an adolescent female martyr of history. Castellucci underscores this theme rather heavy-handedly, augmenting his obvious, almost polemical visual iconography with didactic moments of spoken word. “Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn, Katrin of Russia,” Costa intones outward. “These are the queens who lost their head on account of the people.” The head motif is consequently literalized (and literarized): wearing an enormous masklike helmet which shrinks her body to an emaciated extreme, this female tabula rasa (it would be impossible to describe her as a psychological character) stumbles around as words from Shakespeare flash on screens above the stage. Joan of Arc is thus rendered interchangeable with Juliet, the tragic adolescent feminine in literary guise rather than historical.
Despite his attempts to probe social issues, Castellucci’s essentially painterly approach often inhibits him from achieving nuance appropriate to the ambitions of his theme. Unable to present motifs in configurations other than the purely sensory (and sensational), his nonlinear approach (teen girl to martyr queen to Renaissance ingenue) at best appears as a jumble of haphazard allusions, at worst a series of stereotypes, reinforced rather than critically inspected. More troublingly, Castellucci’s stabs at social commentary often overlap uncomfortably with his more overtly aesthetic fascinations. Like Marie Antoinette and Juliet, the social and the fictive sit side by side in his work without the aid of a contextual frame. Furthermore, Castellucci’s interest in disturbingly violent gestures, which approach near-Artaudian levels of cruelty, adds to the sense of discomfort. For instance, when he ruptures the proscenium frame violently with the hulking silhouettes of forty men, who run onstage from the auditorium and wings to beat on Costa’s frail frame with pillows, Castellucci is at his worst: stiflingly serious to an almost parodic degree, heavy-handed and obvious in his social critique, aestheticizing the violent abuse he simultaneously appears to be excoriating.
Castellucci’s attempts to address the nagging problem of race fare even worse. In Hey Girl!’s second half, Castellucci splits the action between Costa’s white protagonist and a black doppelganger (first glimpsed in a similar white t-shirt and jeans, though she is significantly given no allegorical birth), played (if that is the word) by Sonia Beltran Napoles. If the former is the tragic Female Body Politic, martyred by the Male Historical Masses, then the latter figure is a tragic female type forgotten by History: the Slave. Castellucci proceeds to stage a jaw-droppingly insensitive scene of racial degradation and commodification, as he strips Napoles naked, chains and shackles her wrists and ankles, and forces her to stand on a bed of straw next to a pilgrim slave-trader. In this highly unfortunate scene, a polemical dramaturgy informed by history flattens out into an overdetermined racial spectacle.
Yet for all the consternation over his supremely ambiguous moralizing, Castellucci’s art also yields moments of sublime, unfathomable beauty. He is at his best when he stages physical manifestations of what could accurately be described as the metaphysical experience, a premonitory awareness of life’s bottomless mystery. For instance, after the symbolic birth beginning Hey Girl!, an upstage light suddenly reveals a blank stage flat. Costa’s naked newborn crawls upstage and holds a mirror in front of the totemic surface (evidently, as we now see, a scrim), which explodes in a blinding white ray of light. The image is powerful, largely because it defies straightforward interpretation. Does the mirror suggest something akin to the Lacanian mirror-stage, the narcissistic, pre-adolescent phase following birth? Or is it evocative of a higher consciousness, lurking behind the world of visible perception?
This motif – unfathomable sources of light, perhaps from the beyond, rending the fabric of seeming stage reality – returns late in the action, serving as a structural bookend of sorts. The historical and social progress comprising the body of the piece has been abandoned for something resembling a utopian, post-racial vision of the future. Costa’s white protagonist has purchased and freed her black double, and proceeds to paint her naked body in silver paint (an inscrutable, and exoticizing, image). As the two figures move rhythmically in a ritualistic dance, a red-and-white laser from the theater’s ceiling, accompanied by high-pitched technological squeals, shoots Costa’s dancing figure in the face, specifically her eye. It is one of the production’s central images, and its most transcendent. A massive and thrilling effect, beautiful in its violence, it transports us along with the character in a kind of metaphysical experience. Again, the most obvious corollary is Renaissance portraiture. The company is named after the avatar of Florentine painting, Rafael (in whose work “one bathes in metaphysics,” according to a 1998 interview in Critical Studies), and the motif resembles a visionary staging of the painter’s recurrent theme, the human discovery of the Divine through a shaft of light descending from the heavens. In this sense – its understanding of the aesthetic experience as one synonymous with the sacramental (or, in Italian, the “sanzio”) – the company’s work is highly traditional and neoclassicist, relying on the visual poetics of the Italianate Renaissance tradition as a template for its dramaturgy of sensations.
In all of his preoccupations, manifested in a litany of familiar, and familiarly inextricable, conflations – theater and painting, art and life, metaphysics and aesthetics, aesthetics and politics – the work of Romeo Castellucci and Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio appears to fall in line with a high modernist ethos, a feeling aided and abetted by the company’s multiple gnomic manifestoes. Contemporary art breathes new life through the resurrection of long-dormant modes, their writings variously imply, and the resultant bath of spiritual feeling results in a transgressive, political charge. As a result, the company often posits its own work as a search for origins, an act of self-conscious artistic archaeology. As Claudia Castellucci wrote in November of 2002, “One of the political tasks of the theater as I see it now is to get right to the bottom of its own specific language.” The ultimate undecidability of what this “bottom” might be, and the confusion inherent in conceiving this vaguely defined act of aesthetic essentialization as a “political” task, are thorns of discontent crowning the Socìetas’s violent aesthetics. Though capable of producing astonishing visions for the stage, Castellucci’s messy, sometimes chaotic works elicit a nagging feeling of unease at just what it all means. His tendency to aestheticize the political, to paint suffering and violence on the stage in immense grandeur, is ultimately part of his troublesome modernist inheritance.
To his credit, Castellucci has the nerve to imagine a post-racial future. And yet, upon further inspection, he treats his black and white subjects very differently, never allowing them equality of representation. The black figure, denied an onstage birth reciprocal to her white counterpart and only granted freedom through said figure’s largesse, is tribalized at the play’s end in silver body paint and forced to dance. The white figure, whom the audience accompanies throughout the evening, is the one granted historical importance, social normativity, and ultimately a glimpse of the Divine, not once but twice. One is granted agency and second sight, while the other remains just that, a racial other, defined largely through her relationship to white, power-bearing figures. Perhaps most troubling, the God hovering behind the stage appears at times to be an extension of the artist, with van Eyck’s puzzling appearance serving as a mask for Castellucci himself, the portraitist in orientalist (turbaned) disguise. The theater of Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio may offer new aesthetic horizons for the theater, but a formal analysis yields dark currents of meaning.