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Translator and dramaturg Maria Inês Marques geeks out with fellow Yalie, director Leora Morris, about Romeo Castellucci. The cutting-edge and controversial Italian director and designer recently returned to North America to tour Go Down, Moses, his provocative take on one of the most influential prophets in Western culture. Inspired by this production, we chatted about his mind-blowing work, especially this latest piece, which takes audiences from contemporary Italy to the primordial moments of humanity. Here are the highlights from our conversation:
Maria Inês Marques: Castellucci is one of my biggest theatre obsessions of all time. I was introduced to his work by a dear college professor of mine, and I fell madly in love with it. I remember seeing his Divine Comedy trilogy and The Four Seasons Restaurant and being absolutely mesmerized by his scenic landscapes.
Leora Morris: Did you see On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Song of God?
Maria: No, but I read about it and saw some clips online. Did you see it?
Leora: No, but I watched clips, too. Seeing his work live, more than anyone else's, is like being in the room with opera singers as opposed to hearing recordings of them. When I started working with opera singers at the Yale School of Music, I finally understood what the vibrations do to your body when you receive the sound live. I had a very physically engaged experience watching Go Down, Moses, my first live Castellucci. That makes me think On the Concept of the Face, which is so much about physical decay, must be completely different if you see it live. I had a friend who swore she could smell shit.
Maria: Yes, I was thinking exactly the same thing. Some friends who saw it told me that the odor was so strong that some people left in the middle of the performance because they just couldn't stand it. I would say it's one of his trademarks -- engaging all of your senses.
Leora: I know! I was surprised in Go Down, Moses by not being able to smell blood, because there's so much on stage.
Maria: That's true. I always feel some kind of fear whenever I see his pieces. In The Four Seasons Restaurant, the first minutes were in total darkness and you just heard the sound of some black hole producing energy -- NASA apparently recorded it a few years ago. So he just played that cue really loudly for a few minutes that seemed like an eternity. It's just such a visceral feeling, my whole body was pulsating! In Go Down, Moses, I had the same feeling when the industrial turbine was rolled on stage and started spinning, and the wigs fell from the ceiling only to be sucked down by it.
Leora: Did it ever stop spinning when you saw it?
Leora: So there was a technical malfunction when I saw it. I ascribe intentionality to everything, with Castellucci especially. I thought, OK, he's slowing this down to let us feel falsely relaxed for a second and then he's going to wind it up. But one of the wigs dropped and it wasn't moving, and then it started again. I know that they had a lot technical problems. But still, it's so anxiety-inducing! What blew my mind about the show was that each of his images contained all the possibilities for the other images in the performance. Did you ever have that experience as a kid when someone said, "Don't think about the pink elephant!" And then you immediately thought of the pink elephant? Every moment of the Castellucci piece was a dare for me to try and not think about all the other images in the show.
Maria: That's a great way of putting it!
Leora: You can't help yourself, it feels so tantalizing and delicious. And then he can also make you see the invisible thing that he's not telling you to think about, but that somehow he wants you to be thinking about. His skill is generating a really powerful sense of suggestion. Do you think Go Down, Moses contains hope?
Maria: I…think so.
Leora: Because that's unusual for him.
Maria: I think it resides in Castelluccci's choice of Moses -- the great prophet of the Exodus and the intermediary in the new Covenant of the Jewish people with God -- for the leading figure. What's so amazing about Castellucci is that, when you see the piece, it instinctively makes sense. But he also says that for him there needs to be a dramaturgy of images. Nothing is there by chance, and I think that in a sense, his dramaturgical references point to the refugee crisis happening in Europe right now. When the police officer asks the mother, "Are you Italian? Do you speak Italian? Where do you come from?" When she says she put the baby in a basket in the water, you immediately think of the contemporary tragedy in the Mediterranean and how these people are, nevertheless, moved by the inevitable human instinct for hope and redemption. That's why I found the breaking down of time and space -- with the mother who hides her baby visiting the prehistoric cave -- so significant. There has been a sense of hope and promise since the beginning of times.
Leora: I think you're right. It's about Moses but we never know what is going to happen to the baby in the dumpster, if it's going to live or not. To me, the overriding feeling was the futility of trying to bring a prophet into this world, which I don't think is the totality of what was going on, but that was my experience. Whatever you do, you can just die, and no matter how much we keep trying, we're still stuck here behind the scrim, looking out at something. In a way, their cry for help was met with my passivity as an audience member, so I was just sort of like, "Good luck, you guys!" (Laughs). Futility was so present for me while watching it. OK, total topic change. What did you make of gender in the piece? Were you at all struck by the gender dynamics of the women across time?
Maria: I didn't know anything about the piece before I saw it and I didn't read the program note, so I was surprised that in a piece called Go Down, Moses the mother ends up being the leading character and her experience is the central theme. I actually found it quite interesting that the relationship between mother and child is the core of the piece. What struck you regarding gender?
Leora: I felt like Castellucci was pointing toward something in the police station, the contrast between the uncomprehending, mundane male cop and the prophetic mother.
Maria: Well, the connection between women and the divine sphere, their capacity to prophesize and to see beyond the mundane world, is a trope in Western literature and mythology. I think Castellucci was tapping into that in the police station and cave scenes. The origin of humanity happens when the mother realizes that her child has died and, therefore, feels compelled to mourn her. I guess this ties in with the image of the circle he uses so often in the piece: the entrance to the MRI machine, the mother's vagina when she's giving birth in the restroom, and the O in the SOS drawn on the scrim that separates the audience from the performers. Besides the symbolic dimension, I was absolutely amazed, in a super-geeky way, by the technical aspects of the production. How can they fit all the different sets and props backstage and make those perfect transitions?
Leora: I know! The lighting design was also incredible. I was in the second row, so I felt like I was in the cave. I really stopped believing I was in the theatre, I felt totally transported. I thought I was going to be annoyed, because the whole performance took place behind a scrim, and then he just straight up addressed it, and at some point it was all about the reversal: them seeing us. Also, I'd never been in a room where the sound cues were that loud; it was deafening.
Maria: Yes. I guess that's how his team hides a lot of the sounds during the transitions. I'm also in awe of his visual perfectionism. I heard that they spent 45 minutes on a light cue in preparation for the Montclair performance.
Leora: What did you make of the never-ending hemorrhaging, when the mother is in the public bathroom giving birth?
Maria: I think he always makes us experience an insufferable moment in his productions.
Leora: That hemorrhaging scene lasted ten minutes, legitimately, but it felt like hours.
Maria: And so realistic!
Leora: I actually don't understand how they got so much blood on her.
Maria: And the production is just so smart in terms of engaging the audience visually, because it goes from a very stylized first scene to a super-realistic bathroom that could be in the theatre lobby or the coffee shop you go to every day.
Leora: I remember being struck by the detail of the door handle, when people turn it as they are trying to come in. Her purse is hanging, and then it slides off into the blood. I was so taken by that moment; the attention to that detail was just brilliant.
Maria: You know, when he presented On the Concept of the Face in Paris, there were protests by devout Christians because of its content. They had to lock down the theatre and provide escorts for Castellucci and the performers, because people actually wanted to assault them. It was a big deal.
Leora: Yes, his work is hugely controversial…Do you know where the phrase "go down, Moses" comes from? Is it directly from the Scripture?
Maria: No, but there's a spiritual with that title that used to be sung by African slaves who obviously identified with the suffering of the Jewish people during their captivity in Egypt. And it's precisely about the moment when God sends Moses back to his people in order to reveal the Ten Commandments.
Leora: I thought at some point, this is what I wanted him to be talking about, contemporary enslavement. I was blown away that Castellucci could take this trope from the Bible and actually rip it open in this fresh way that left me wondering about my own enslavement. And it was so successfully and simply achieved. I felt the questioning of capitalism and the patriarchy, and a critique of the division between body and mind. I was so moved by the cave scene because it felt so led by the body in contrast with the police station scene, which is all about reason and language.
Maria: To me, the mother has a line that unlocks the whole piece. She says, "They still haven't realized they're a people because they don't realize they are slaves." And during the police station interrogation, Castellucci seems to be pointing toward our modern condition, the tyranny of the bureaucratic states over our bodies, the very square, standardized strategies of processing citizens.
Leora: And the medicalization of everything, too. This woman is talking about a spiritual, prophetic experience and they just want to examine her.
Maria: What did you think of the industrial turbine? To me that was the most amazing and disturbing element.
Leora: I definitely can't say that I get what it was, but it was extremely disturbing. It was like watching people being decapitated. It reminded me of fire and a human being sucked down. It was very Dante, you know? It was like falling into the orbit of something really dangerous. Whatever that spinning wheel was, it's eating all of us, one by one -- whether it's capitalism or Facebook.
Maria: If you got an email or a phone call from Romeo Castellucci proposing a one-year assistant director position, what would you tell him?
Leora: Yes! I'd be afraid of him, of course. But I would totally accept! I would love to be present when he generates something because I want to know what his process is, to what extent he jumps toward what he sees in front of him or has everything written down in his notebook. Two of my friends just graduated from a directing program in Montreal and watched him in tech rehearsal. One of them texted me, "Well, today's lesson is that Castellucci in tech is like everyone." So that's good to know! He fascinates me, for sure. There's something about his work that, although being very seasoned, also feels very youthful and rebellious.
Romeo Castellucci's shows are frequently performed at Peak Performances at New Jersey's Montclair State University, and various avant-garde NYC theatre festivals.
Maria Inês Marques is a Portuguese dramaturg and translator. She's currently a third-year MFA student in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at Yale School of Drama.
Top photo: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, Festival d’Avignon 2011 by Christophe Reynaud de Lage