(photo credit: Klaus Lefebvre)
The Face of Controversy
FTA challenges all comers
by Chad Dembski
After reading about the protests that followed On The Concept of The Face, Regarding the Son of God in Paris I was extra curious about the controversial content of this piece. Outside of Place des Arts were two adults with large white signs decrying the show and Place des Arts for supporting it. I was excited to see this latest work of Romeo Castelluci after having seen two of his previous pieces Orestia (FTA 1997) and Genesi (FTA 2000) - some of the most exciting, experimental and inspiring pieces of live performance I had ever seen. The images, sounds and performances from both of those shows have stayed with me until this day and I often speak of them as some of the best examples of avant garde theatre.
Romeo Castelluci and his company Societas Raffaelo Sanzio are fearless - they take on any subject including deconstructing classical plays and historical literature, religion, beauty, history, body image, mental illness, and physical deformity. In On the Concept... the theme of old age, dignity and family care are investigated in the most intimate and raw ways possible. A very basic story unfolds, a son is taking care of his Father in his apartment and needs to help him clean himself. A slow process of tenderly changing and washing his father unfolds and not for a second did I feel as if I wasn’t actually in their apartment. The scene repeats itself to almost comic levels as the Father keeps having bowel accidents and the son becomes increasingly upset and irate. What occurred to me in this disturbing, uncomfortable and graphic scene was how film and television would ever barely get this realistic, much less theatre, which often does not want to make its audience uncomfortable. Romeo Castelluci is inspired by the work of Artaud, the somewhat famous but also somewhat forgotten French avant garde master who invented the Theatre of Cruelty. This complex style is rarely used and the best example I can give is Artaud’s own explanation in “Theatre and its Double”: that the plague was one of the best moments of theatre in history. While this show does not go that far, the tension in the theatre was as high as it gets with some audience members laughing, others hiding their faces, looks of mass confusion and everything in between. I myself almost felt sick but only because the performers were committing 100% to the realism of the moment. Although I have not personally experienced it, I now feel I better understand the humiliation, frustration and shame associated with the body falling apart.
A second part of the show seems to come out of nowhere as the scene shifts to the large recreation of Antonello da Messina’s Christ Blessing painting that hangs at the back of the stage. Children slowly enter the stage with backpacks and begin to throw grenade-like rocks at the painting while a punishing sound score blasts the theatre. Almost overly-symbolic in nature but still an effective metaphor about the cycle of life and no matter how young or old there is a question of “why is life like this?". The piece at this point turns into live installation and presents a mix of sound, film and set coming apart at the seams.
Leaving I felt confused, slightly ill and sad but I wouldn’t say that it was a bad piece. To me this type of show goes beyond good or bad, it is in a category all its own and I think is one of the best examples of avant garde contemporary performance. I admire this show for going as far as it did and for exploring themes that few are willing to touch much less display graphically on stage.