Feminine product

Director Romeo Castellucci explores the dark side of the female psyche.

CHECK YOUR HEAD Silvia Costa uses her noggin in Hey Girl!

CHECK YOUR HEAD Silvia Costa uses her noggin in Hey Girl! Photograph: Francesco Raffaelli

He is one of the big boys of international theater, cataloged alongside Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook. He’s Italian, but his nightmarish vignettes rarely use text—translation can’t be the issue. So why have you never seen a Romeo Castellucci show? It may not be your fault: Castellucci’s 27-year-old Socíetas Raffaello Sanzio (SRS) has never performed in New York.

Jed Wheeler has made it his mission to rectify that—or at least to get the director to New Jersey. Wheeler presented an episode from Castellucci’s 11-part Tragedia Endogonidia at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theater (where Wheeler is executive director) three years ago, and he’s still devoted. This week, he hosts Hey Girl!, a ghoulish 70-minute X-ray of femininity which has divided the critics. Wheeler, for one, sees Castellucci as the next step along the Robert Wilson image-as-text path, terrifying audiences into an unprecedented level of engagement.

Stanford Ph.D. candidate Daniel Sack, a rare stateside expert, studies Castellucci because he “tries to stage the beginnings of the world.” It’s a typically gob-smacked reaction to the work. Sack recalls wandering the streets of Dublin, stunned after seeing SRS’s 1999 Genesi: from the museum of sleep. The piece riffled through horrifying images: an emaciated man forcing his way between screaming bars, defecating dogs ignoring a deformed Cain and Castellucci’s own children in a hazy Wonderland-cum-Auschwitz. Flip through Castellucci’s oeuvre and you’ll find a black horse drenched in milk and orchestra seats full of six-foot velveteen rabbits. Such tableaux brook no analysis—they bypass critical faculties to burrow directly into the subconscious.

Castellucci originally trained as an artist, and his lush mise-en-scènes would fit comfortably in museums. But he and his regular collaborators (his sister Claudia and wife Chiara Guidi) don’t simply frame pretty pictures. They are iconoclasts in the literal sense—displaying icons just to rip them from their niches. Describing his urge to create and destroy images, the director writes: “It is when a house is burning that one can see its structure.” Castellucci’s own expositions can be densely poetic—as helpful as talking to one of his soggy horses. But the work requires no explanation. “I’ve had nontheatergoing friends who liken SRS’s work to Dalí, even Nine Inch Nails,” Sack notes. Film buffs compare the director to David Lynch; fine-art fans think he is the neoplastic Neo Rauch.

Sack describes Hey Girl! as a departure. “Here he actually explored a character. I think he found that difficult,” he says. Critics didn’t find it much easier: Hey Girl! met with adulation after the Festival d’Automne in Paris last year, but American papers have been split. (The Chicago Tribune found it “compelling” but suffering from a “surfeit of victimhood”; The Vancouver Sun sniffed at its gender politics.) “There’s something titillating in the scenario,” Wheeler acknowledges. “Romeo launched the piece while watching girls going to school, but he uses the particular to talk about the general. He forces you to project onto it.” Hey, audience! If you’re having creepy thoughts, you have only yourselves to blame.

Hey Girl! is at the Kasser Theater through Sun 10.