Furious Capitalism or Fascist Consumerism: Notes from “Pylade”

We, the citizens of Argos day after day, we construct our future. The income of everyone of us has doubled. The trade of our city has multiplied: our products impose themselves in the markets of the world. The money that is in circulation is like a kind of youth, which does not leave time to think of anything else than itself : each one of us participates in this fury of growth. – Chorus, Episode 2, Scene 1 – “Pylade” by Pier Paolo Passolini 

Photo by Suncan Stone

Perry Yung & Eugene the Poogene Photo by Suncan Stone

Last December, La Mama’s Great Jones Repertory Company (which I have been a member of since 1997) premiered Italian writer, filmmaker, and intellectual Pier Paolo Passolini’s Pylade in New York.  Croatian director Ivica Buljan’s process was incisively dramaturgical. In understanding this dense, poetic text, he called upon the Company to consider both the material realities of the ancient landscape (say, the smell of the town square in Argos) and connections or references in our contemporary lives (anything from Reservoir Dogs to Beau Travail, Simone de Beauvoir to Camille Paglia, or Die Antwoord to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker could be called upon). While still in the early stages of the American presidential primaries, character portrayals in this work, now in hindsight perhaps too whimsically, took reference points from the capitalist excesses of Donald Trump, the compromised democracy of Obama and the fervencies of revolutionary inclinations and religious fundamentalism.  This summer, the Company took the production to Italy, Portugal, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. Hitting Europe in the wake of the Brexit vote and returning to the US in the midst of the hateful, misogynistic, racist and xenophobic rhetoric spewing forth from the Republican convention, the dangers of buying in to campaign promises of increased wealth for the sake of national welfare have become terrifyingly real. Now, approaching the final months of this brutal and distressing presidential campaign, the dominance of the capitalist state seems solidified and the lessons embedded in Passolini’s tragic meditation feel insistently relevant.

“Pylade” is the tragedy of the hubris of the liberal elite and the nihilism of the disenfranchised – a tragedy our world is presently living through again as people across the globe increasingly turn to extremist ideology…we feel the full brunt of this tale of cyclical cataclysmic confrontation.” – Zachary Stewart, TheaterMania

Mia Yoo as "Electra" Photo by Suncan Stone

Mia Yoo as “Electra” Photo by Suncan Stone

In Pylade, the returned would-be king, Orestes, denounces his right to the throne in order to establish democracy in ancient Greece. Under the aegis of Athena, the “newest of the gods,” he establishes a parliament, creating a new ruling class defined by their wealth rather than their bloodlines.  He finds himself pitted against both his sister and his devoted companion. Electra, in righteous indignation, violently adheres to the cult of the old gods and establishes an army out of the former slaves of her hated mother, the Queen Clytemenestra.  His beloved Pylade opts to push further into social revolution and raises his own army out of the poor, the immigrants and those not served by the glories of this new bourgeoisie. Passolini wrote the play in the 1960s as a condemnation of the growing “new consumerism” which, as legendary theater critic Randy Gener pointed out, he considered to be a “worse form of fascism than the classical variety.” Here we stand again. Trump as The Candidate that a major political party in America is holding forth (or more notably couldn’t stop) is running on a campaign of fear, love of the past (which Pylade explains to Orestes is our natural inclination because it is the only thing we can truly “know.”), and financial greed. He’s presenting his hyperbolized fiscal prowess as qualifications for the hardest job on the planet and enough citizens believe in the dollar’s power so unfailingly as to ignore the despotic tyranny that he prefers to practice and is, essentially, proposing.

Or, our mass-social-media-mentality has run so far rampant and our reality-television saturation point is so high, that we can’t distinguish the song of a con from that of a lark.

Valois Mickens and Perry Yung Photo by Suncan Stone

Valois Mickens and Perry Yung Photo by Suncan Stone

When Pylade premiered in New York, it was the first time this play was being produced in America. Half a century after Passolini’s declamation against consumerist fascism, his hopeful belief in the promise of America was decidedly naive. The show opens with a monologue by Valois Mickens (Chorus) referencing how the dead bodies of the murdered queen and her lover have lain in the town square for many days and derides us for thinking that the return of Orestes will change anything: that’s what it means to have considered first the paternal lords who governed us, then those ferocious tyrants afterwords to consider them like the fruit of some ancient will stronger than us simple humans! Thats what it means to have believed that the song most profound and most true sung in the core of our lives was that obscure song of the Furies! Anyone who has studied the various cultural revolutions of the US during the 60s (reportedly these fed Passolini’s hopeful vision of the goddess Athena) and those in China (Pylade) and Russia (Orestes), can see the underpinnings of a paradigmatic global shift but that shift has been insistently towards neither democracy nor communism. Passolini’s Pylade is a tragedy wherein he concludes that leaders and the masses rarely collaborate successfully. Pylade yearns to serve those abandoned by Orestes: You are the son of the King, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. And if Athena illuminated you, with her pure Reason, you are, impure because in you, there is your story. And, today, that changes. You believe you’re looking with the clear eyes of Reason while you are looking with the myopic eyes of the one who has power. And you no longer understand those who remain as they were at the time of Kings, those who work your fields today as they did before, who have nothing to substitute for the old savage faith, neither riches, nor a dream of riches. However, Pylade fails in the end where wealth, prosperity and distracting displays succeed.

In the scene quoted at the top of this article, Chris Wild (Chorus) declares the financial success against a backdrop of sensationalistic excess. Drenched in sweat, his silk shirt ripped, but ever dressed while a naked couple entertains him (and Orestes and Pylade), he ignores the warnings of Perry Yung (Peasant) a citizen from the mountains, who has seen a burgeoning plague.  While the peasant details the return of the Furies, the wealthy continue their revelries in a display of true hubris, denying the existence of the gods. During the original run of the show last December, The New Yorker published a piece revealing leaked 2008 warnings by Syria’s Minister of Agriculture to the United Nations that the consequences of the drought would be catastrophic and unmanageable. America ignored the call for aid and we’ve all been witness to loss of stability there in the resulting displacement and radicalization of the region. Landing for our tour to news of the Istanbul airport bombings and performing for citizens for whom the Syrian refugee crisis has been a constant humanitarian concern brought various parts of the story to the foreground. But, in the end, the message remains clear and similar to the take away from our run in NYC in Dec: the privileged will remain blissfully ignorant for as long as possible and despite nostalgic dreams of better days, refuse to use the past to avoid mistakes. We are too easily distracted by sex and violence.

And, snarky, ironic news outlets. We are easily distracted in the middle of ideologically inspired violence everywhere. The revolution cannot be televised when television has opiated the masses. When television is driven by the incessant demands of revenue and profit. When Hollywood romanticizes the anger and the violence of past revolutions and diminishes the physical realities of contemporary ones in an insatiable feeding frenzy, we fail to recognize the retreat to past inequities. The deeply rooted vitriolic hatred of Hilary Clinton reaches farther back than even the euphemistic #withher references can revive. The dismissal of the horrific conditions that demand we believe #blacklivesmatter ignores our violent history as a country. The protests against the war in Vietnam were not models of civil disobedience full of peacefully strung flowers and folk music. Calling all of these efforts a movement whether Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation or Anti-War, has homogenized the regional and ideological differences. It has softened our memories and allowed us to forget how angry and divided this country has been. Bernie-bros wanted a revolution, and some of them displayed enough aggressive behavior to appear to understand the definition of the term. Revolution is already underway. Bodies are laying in the streets. And, Trump keeps calling for more. Challenging Clinton’s secret service to lay down their arms in an invitation to murder. The promises of Athena cannot prevail when the proposed leaders of this country sing the song of the Furies, trading upon fear, uncertainty and love of a falsified past.

Marko Mandic (Maura Donohue & John Gutierrez) Photo by Theo Cote

Marko Mandic (Maura Donohue & John Gutierrez) Photo by Theo Cote

No one who sees the Great Jones Repertory Company Production of this show can leave the show unprovoked.  Buljan’s heady dramaturgy and unrelenting belief in “gettare it proprio corpo nella lotta” (throw his body into the fight) feed the fire of this production. We spent the first of 3 very intense rehearsal weeks at the table imagining the smell of the rotting bodies and trying to find our way into relevancies for individual characters, the actors and an American and global landscape. But, the power of the show is in the lived struggles of the performers who have thrown our bodies into the fight. And none more exhaustively or committed than leading Slovenian actor Marko Mandic’s tour de force performance of the title character. Mandic is the praxis of Buljan’s theory. He is action in service to the idea of revolution, both within the narrative of the play and a campaign against the bourgeois tendencies of traditional theater. Buljan rallies Passolini’s methodology of juxtaposed poetry and profanity throughout the work, and Mandic is the perfect vessel. A multi-award winning actor with the Slovenian National Theater, his work with the more subversive international theater project Via Negativa, now Via Novaoperates at the furthest realms of performance work I’ve encountered in today’s conservative arts landscape.

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Chris Wild, Tunde Sho, Maura Donohue, Mia Yoo, Cary Gant & Marko Mandic

It could be simple to say that the Slavs just don’t suffer foolishness. I admit I spent much of our rehearsal process bemoaning how soft we were as American artists, how safe. As a dancer, the idea of putting one’s body on the line was not foreign, but the conventions of performing, the artifice of theater hindered the group – dogged us to the end. But, once the Company – one-by-one – realized just how far Buljan would let us go (usually by watching Mandic climb out the window, hang off ledges and draw the cops to an occasional rehearsal), the truly experimental nature of the process began and the cultural exchange fermented into a stirring cocktail. The ensemble’s balls-to-the-wall (or, literally, in your face) summoning of the revolutions of theater brought the Great Jones Repertory Company back to its roots. In the 70s, the company won Obies with their immersive, sexual, violent, productions of “Medea,” “Electra,” and “Trojan Women.”  Under Buljan’s direction, the company returned to both rigorous ideas and exhaustive physical tasks. Yes, more than half the cast is naked. And, doing cartwheels or parkour or rock climbing. Yes, Mandic fucks a watermelon. Yes, there’s singing. Yes, there’s fighting. Yes, there’s live music. Yes, it’s a Greek tragedy. And, yes, for some it is a visceral reminder of the days of the Living Theater and “Dionysus in ’69” and for others its “that kind of theater.” As a scholar and a nerd, Ivica’s dramaturgy was inspiring. As a dancer, however, his insistence on a level of physical reality was invigorating and familiar. Any of the re-performers of Marina Abramovic’s MoMA show will recognize the difficulty and delight of putting your whole self on the line. No fight calls here. If Mia Yoo, as Electra, was going to slap Tunde Sho, as Orestes, you will hear that smack and watch his sweat fly. I’d smell like John Guiterrez’s balls every night. Tunde and Eugene the Poogene smelled like Marko’s.  As in performance art, every run-through mattered as much as a ticketed show. We threw our bodies into this fight. The pretense of theatrical play would not do alongside (according to Ivica’s notes) “Pasolini’s emphasis on the inextricability of artistic creation from political project.” He wrote his play in and about his time. We perform it in and about ours. But, both the written words and the physical realization are parts of lived and contested pasts and the current and contested present. It is, as Randy Gener called it, “hard-core politico-sensationalism.” But, in this era of endless sensationalism thinly veiled as political rhetoric, of a cartoon character presidential candidate, spawned from a generation of reality television perhaps this kind of LIVE work may be the only way to make both the medium and the message relevant again.

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