By ELAINE MOLINARO
For Montclair Local
“Nations always feel the effects of their origins,” wrote the 19th century author Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 book “Democracy in America.” In a piece of the same name making its U.S. premiere at Peak Performances last week, Italian theater and opera director Romeo Castellucci showed scenes recalling the origins of America: the religious fervor of Pentecostals speaking in tongues, the rhythmic song of African-Americans on a chain gang, the melodic words of Native Americans conversing in the Ojibwe language. Castellucci, who fuses performance and visual arts, evokes specters in America’s past (and present) — religious extremism, racism, colonialism and genocide but also more abstract ideas such as the power structures created by language. Much of the production was thrilling, but some gratuitous nudity in the all-female cast undercut its power.
Castellucci’s company Societas Raffaello Sanzio, founded in 1981, has been presented worldwide in more than 50 countries. In the United States, Jedediah Wheeler of Montclair State University’s Peak Performances has presented several of his works.
In the all-female cast, 18 women dressed as soldiers held 18 flags for the 18 letters in the piece’s title. In the most lighthearted part of the evening, the director played an amusing game of jumble. Those same 18 letters can spell Decay Crime Macaroni. Each word formed put forth another reflection on America. How many countries can the letters spell? The soldiers and their flags lined up to spell out Canada, Romania, Myanmar, Yemen, India, Iran and others as the audience mused on America in relation to each of them.
Castellucci is an avant garde image maker, and many of the images, often behind scrims which created a dream-like quality, were of startling beauty and haunting suffering. One of my favorites was of a Puritan man in a 17th century pilgrim hat at the center of a nearly empty stage. Under a single orange light representing the hot sun, he swung a hoe to sow his field, stopping only a moment to tilt his wide black brimmed hat and wipe the sweat from his brow before continuing his toils. In the next scene, simply the way the man’s wife Elizabeth held herself spoke reams about the Puritan rigidity under which the earliest American settlers lived. The woman, a contemporary kind of Eve, confessed sacrilegious thoughts to her husband’s horror. The actresses spoke in Italian with English subtitles projected, bringing an international flare. Many of the scenes seemed to go on two thirds longer than they needed to, however, without altering the image or tone. The caustic score was at times deafening.
In the second half of the piece, while key dates of American history flash on the scrim, we see religious images of sacrifice. A chorus of women in red robes dance around the prostrate Elizabeth, then remove their robes. The extended sequences of completely nude folk-dancing young women became increasingly difficult for this reviewer to watch. The human form is beautiful, but is the liberal (gratuitous?) use of a chorus of naked female forms the best way to comment on the subject matter? Or does it perpetuate and normalize for yet another generation the image of young naked groups of women consigned to eternal anonymity like the nude nymphs in countless paintings there to be consumed for viewing pleasure?
The rich visual vocabulary of “Democracy in America” thrills and provokes in many respects, but is disappointing in its exposure of its young performers. Seeing less skin may have allowed us to look further into their souls and through them further into the soul of our democracy.