Thinking Outside the Box Office: What Makes Romeo Castellucci the Maverick of Contemporary Theater?

The dramatic production of the Italian-born director's 'The Four Season Restaurant' is a feat of theatrical innovation.

For theatergoers with subscription seats at Tel Aviv’s Habima or Cameri Theaters who from time to time board a plane to see shows in London’s West End or on Broadway, the name Romeo Castellucci may not ring many bells. However, for those who do not regard theater as a performance of a written text, i.e. a play, but rather as a creative art, and for those who seek out, and find their theater in festivals such as the Avignon Festival in France, Italian-born Romeo Castellucci, 53, is the very epitome of theatrical creativity. For nearly two decades, Castellucci has been considered one of the most important and innovative figures in contemporary theater.

This year, he was invited to be the curator for the Malta Festival Poznan. The festival has no connection with the island of Malta; it has been taking place for the last 20 years in Poznan, Poland, and Malta is the name of both the lake located not far from the city and the foundation that funds the festival. Here was a wonderful opportunity to see his latest work, “The Four Seasons Restaurant,” and to savor, as much as one can in four days, the selection of theater and dance productions and theatrical displays that Castellucci helped choose, in accordance with the title he selected for this year’s festival: “Oh Man, Oh Machine.” As he explained in Italian (which was simultaneously translated into Polish and English), the “oh” is an integral part of the title, because Castellucci is fascinated by man and by machines – in all their various forms.

Castellucci is a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, Italy, and claims that theatre "just happened" to him. From the early 1980s, his center of activity has been his hometown of Cesena, where, together with his sister, theorist and choreographer Claudia Castellucci, and his wife, playwright Chiara Guidi (their wedding was held in Jerusalem), he founded the Societas Raffaello Sanzio, named after renowned Italian Renaissance painter Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio). Although his starting point is visual, he is quick to emphasize – and anyone who has seen his work would certainly agree – that “this is not a painting,” to paraphrase the title of a book on his creative work that appeared in Poznan on the occasion of the festival’s opening.

The title of this dramatic production, “The Four Seasons Restaurant,” alludes to a celebrated incident in the American artistic world: American painter Mark Rothko undertook to design the walls for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building – designed by German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But when Rothko saw the consumer atmosphere in the restaurant, he gave back the advance payment he had received and refused to display his work there. Here the connection between this incident and Castellucci’s creation ends, and “The Four Seasons Restaurant” then takes the viewer’s imagination in entirely different directions. The production opens with a text displayed on a screen on which one can see the image of a black hole, around whose margins sketches of broken waves prance about. The text informs the audience that a NASA telescope has captured in the depths of the Perseus Galaxy Cluster a black hole from whose rim X-rays are being emitted. An American scientist, the text goes on to say, has succeeded in translating those emissions into digital audio signals. These are the sounds the audience hears with ever-growing intensity; the intensity increases to the point where the sounds strike at every part of one’s body: sounds from the depths of the universe, from a distance of 250 million light-years, sounds that stun the senses.

When the curtain opens, in a silence that speaks volumes, the audience can see a brightly lit, empty gymnasium, with ladders on the wall and a vaulting horse. A young woman enters, dressed in a novices' habit; she is holding a pair of scissors. She advances to center stage, turns to the audience, and then begins with slow hand motions to cut out her own tongue. The blood flows into a handkerchief she withdraws from her pocket, and a piece of flesh falls to the floor. Nine more young women gradually join her. Some of them are led – perhaps against their will – and some are supported; all of them perform the same action of cutting out their tongues. After they form a silent circle at the side of the stage, a dog emerges, gathers up the amputated tongues from the floor in his mouth and exits.

If the audience was stunned by the sounds of the production’s opening, they are paralyzed in their seats by the violence of this grotesquely silent scene. Castellucci previously used the image of the tongue being cut out when he directed a theater spectacle based on William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” which focused, inter alia, on the power of rhetoric.

In a conversation after the performance, Castellucci explained to me that this image of silencing is intended to express the forgoing of language (he considers any language a kind of machine or mechanism) to reach another capacity for expression that is closer to a certain kind of quintessence of life.

However, the moment you say Castellucci has “explained” something about his work, you must qualify. He refuses to talk about meaning, content or the artist’s intentions. Among the goals of his work are to make the artist vanish and express his creation through different forms to give the audience optimal space for exploring – and finding – the meanings behind the artistic experience. From Castellucci’s perspective, whatever the audience absorbs is correct. In this respect, his work is meant to speak for itself. However, this does not mean that his works are mystical rituals of any kind. Quite the contrary, Castellucci is strictly pragmatic as far as his artistic activity is concerned. He displays what borders on hostility toward concepts such as improvisation when they are applied to work processes. A central feature of his theater is an emphasis on artificiality that leaves no room for identification on the part of the actors or the audience. All the scenes in this production, even when the actresses represent characters, are gestures taken from Renaissance paintings and sculptures – large, frozen and ceremonial gestures. The actresses are first positioned in a stylized, group picture, and only then do they recite their lines.

The inspiration for Castellucci’s “The Four Seasons Restaurant” is a dramatic poem by 18th-century German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin, “The Death of Empedocles.” (It should be noted here that, in recent years, Castellucci has created his works by himself without any collaboration with his sister or his wife.Today, he is the director and choreographer and also determines the production’s lighting, stage movements and music.) The central figure in the poem is a fifth-century B.C.E. Greek philosopher, Empedocles, who formulated the theory of the four elements of the universe – earth, water, wind and fire – and the relationship between them: love and strife. He also studied, taught and healed the sick in Agrigentum in Sicily. According to legend, he plunged to his death into the mouth of a volcano – Mount Aetna. Commentators are divided over what led him to leap into a volcano: Was it an arrogant challenge to the gods (in the belief that he was endowed with godlike power), the expression of an aspiration to probe the secret of the universe or punishment from the gods for his hubris as expressed in his aspiration to know what is beyond human understanding?

The core of Castellucci’s production is a stylized dramatization of the astonishment of the people in the face of Empedocles’ power and the anger of Agrigentum’s leaders over his taunting the gods. Three of the young women on stage portray Empedocles in turn, each putting a tiara made of gold leaves in their hair when they do so in a given scene. On the stage, one can also see the flag of the Confederate States from the time of the American Civil War; the young women go on stage, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles when they present the conflict between the city’s rulers and the philosopher, a conflict that ultimately causes him to decide to hurl himself into the mouth of the volcano.

This rhetorical section of the production (the translation of the Italian text is shown on a screen at the back of the stage) is followed by the second climactic scene in “The Four Seasons Restaurant” in which all ten women participate. They gradually create a closely knit group as, one by one, they are born out of the group, with each of them bursting forth and sliding with infinite softness into a blend of female bodies. As they are lying in a fetal position on the stage, their colleagues gently remove their grey, bulky dresses and gently escort or dispatch them offstage. Despite the complete female nudity, the scene has no erotic dimension: It is a picture of pure, soft beauty.

After all of the women have been reborn, the blue curtain is closed and the final words of Empedocles are screened on the curtain: “Don’t leave me.” The line is repeated three times. Although, in theory, he gives the members of the audience complete freedom to interpret as they choose, Castellucci rejected out of hand my assumption that these words allude to Jesus’s last words on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is to say, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The curtain is withdrawn from the depths of the stage, revealing the carcass of a dead horse. When the curtain returns to the front of the stage, the audience witnesses the billowing forth of a powerful whirlwind of black and grey as tiny particles are shot in the air, as if a volcano is erupting right before it. Beyond the whirlwind, one can see the group of naked women, their backs to the audience as they look at huge female face that appears in the background.

Replying in the negative, Castellucci once again thwarts my efforts to interpret what takes place on stage. This is not Jesus’s face, which played such a central role in another of Castellucci’s productions, “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God,” which generated much controversy when it was presented because, under Jesus’s portrait, an elderly man in diapers marches along and the central image in this theatrical presentation is his secretions, which fill the entire auditorium.

What is exciting about “The Four Seasons Restaurant” – and what characterizes, as I have read, his previous creations – is the beauty and stunning power of the images and the precision and elegance of his intricate, complex artistry. Le Monde described Castellucci’s version of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as one of the ten most important influential cultural events of the first decade of the 21st century.

When I asked him whether the whole crew had come from Italy, he replied that only four actresses who recited lines accompanied him from Italy; the others were local actresses, chosen by the festival according to Castellucci’s professional specifications. When I wanted to know what those specifications were, he told me that he insisted on actresses with the ability to remember movement on stage. How long did the rehearsals with the local actresses take? He replied that they took two days. How long did the rehearsals with the Italian actresses take? Ten days, he answered. From his perspective, when he sets out to realize one of his creations on stage, he already has fully stage-managed it in his head. What about the dog? This, he smiled, was the simplest element of all in the production. The dog is a local canine “actor.” All that was needed was to spread pieces of raw meat on the stage; there was no need to give the dog any stage directions whatsoever. He knew instinctively what had to be done.

Despite Castellucci’s refusal to talk about ideas, viewers who emerge from his beautiful, stunning visual production are flooded with ideas that intertwine and mesh: The black hole of the depths of outer space that broadcasts digital audio signals and the black hole of the depths of the volcano in which Empedocles plunged; the forgoing of the spoken word and the abandonment of the cut-out tongues to a hungry dog; the animal instinct that is perhaps closer to the essence of life than the words and the artificial gestures that accompany those words, and the carcass of the dead horse at center stage: on one hand, violence and brute power, on the other, beauty and softness.

When I asked him what the mouth of the volcano meant to him, Castelluccithought for a moment before replying that it was the stages' opening. I wanted to know from which side he leaps into the mouth of the volcano – from the stage to the audience, or vice versa. He answered that he leaps into the audience but, quickly correcting himself, answered laughing, "Both."

Maciej Zakrzewski
Malta Festival 2013