On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God
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Theater review by Helen Shaw. Kasser Theater, Montclair State University. Conceived and directed by Romeo Castellucci. With Gianni Plazzi, Sergio Scarlatella. 1hr. No intermission.
Those who have seen Italian superdirector Romeo Castellucci's work with his company, Societas Raffaello Sanzio, arrive at his work expecting a specific kind of sensory assault. In works like Tragedia Endogonida and Genesi, from the museum of sleep, sound and image married in events that had their own deep-hued, Jungian inevitability—steaming horses, barking dogs, animate trees. One surprise, therefore, in the compact lament On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (which closed Feburary 17) is the naturalistic style of Castellucci's attack.
On a stage simply set with bright white furniture, a shaking old man (Plazzi) watches television. His son (Scarlatella) bustles through the apartment, then notices his father is weeping. First the old man soils himself, a brown stain on his white robe. Then he does it again. The son cleans up and re-diapers his father, but the inconsolable patriarch repeatedly loses control. An awful fecal stench rolls out into the audience. Photorealism shifts subtly into homely farce, then into tragedy. And throughout, a massive reproduction of Antonello da Messina's 15th-century Christ Blessing stares silently down from the back wall. The painting's impassivity drives the play into its second movement, in which a cadre of children stone the gentle-eyed image while electronic sound thunders through the theater. Is it a protest? Or a prayer?
Castellucci's show has the symmetry of a call-and-response catechism, and its iterative structure forces us into contemplation—of our own frailties, our capacities and the evaporating potential for grace. On the Concept of the Face, in its dogged pacing, dispenses with the certain niceties of performance, like entertainment and escapism. Very little happens, yet the experience is rich—perhaps because we are thinking of our own parents, and we fill in the play's deliberate lacunae with our own, specific grief.
The production was pursued by controversy in its European performances, but in New Jersey, that turmoil seemed a distant thing. In our audience, at least, no one gasped or hurled eggs, as a few did in Paris. Foreknowledge of those other, violent reactions can actually warp your experience; critics elsewhere have gotten annoyed when the show doesn't inspire “moral outrage.” But despite composer Scott Gibbons's terrifying score, there's nothing truly aggressive here, only heartbroken meditation. Castellucci has turned away from his usual non-narrative mise en scène in order to say these things about human pain; he has rendered up his own aesthetic habits. It does, therefore, feel petty to complain that in the show's final moments, his radical simplicity tips into obviousness. After rappelling graffitos deface the giant Christ image, glowing letters appear that say (in English), You are my shepherd. As the sign flickers—changing to You are not my shepherd. The piece, previously so clear, turns literal. Castellucci, having spent an hour in exquisite confession, commits a single, solitary sin: He repeats himself.—Helen Shaw