Everybody Hates a Tourist: Romeo Castellucci Visited America, and Makes Clear He’s Picked Up Some of Our Worst Habits

Photo by Marina Levitskaya

I can’t remotely claim to have seen a majority of Romeo Castellucci’s work produced over the last decade since I became aware of him, but if there’s one thing I previously appreciated in it, it was a serious and meaningful concern for how the human body exists onstage. Perhaps because his work is so visual and spectacle-oriented, the way the performer and their body are incorporated has generally been thoughtful and precise in order to explore the relationship between image and lived experience. Whether it’s presenting the uses and abuses of the female body in Western art (Hey Girl), the indignities of aging confronting the shallowness of religious redemption (On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God), or the forces of politics enacted through corrupted bodies (his legendary Caesar from the 1990s, recently re-presented in reduced form as Julius Caesar. Spared Parts), his choices have previously demonstrated an empathetic (if not always unproblematic) view of the impacts of social, political and religious forces on actual living bodies.

Which makes Democracy in America not just offensive but, at first, somewhat baffling: How does an artist who seems so cognizant of these sorts of issues arrive at a scene in which two White female actors perform as Native American males wearing literal red-skin-suits, which they will peel off, revealing their White naked bodies at the end? (This doesn’t even fully describe the show’s tone-deaf, racist choices.)

Democracy in America, which had a brief but unnecessary run at the Peak Performance Series at Montclair State University this last weekend, is very loosely inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 book-length study of the young United States of America. Castellucci’s focus has been to take a couple ideas from the book which jive with his own, and otherwise use the title to propose his own exercise in psychoanalyzing the conditions of the country’s founding.

The performance begins not with an onstage action but with a sound recording, of a Pentecostal church service in 1980 where the congregation are all speaking in tongues. (This information is provided to the audience via projections.) After this ends, the first performed scene unrolls, where 18 dancers, all female, march onstage wearing white marching band costumes and carrying a rolled flag each. As a drum plays they march about the stage in formation until, at the end of the march, they’ve ordered themselves such to unfurl their flags to spell-out DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. Then the exercise repeats over and over again, with them at first spelling several other non-sensical phrases generated from the same 18 letters. Eventually, dancers start peeling off at the end of each march, spelling out the less-than-18-character names of different countries such as IRAN, MYANMAR and YEMEN. For the first but not the last time in this show, this series of apparently significant statements becomes impossible to parse. Trying to connect why these nations are being referenced (something to do with theocratic government…?) proves fruitless, and the scene rolls on like a gag that’s long since stopped being funny.

Following this scene, for equally obscure reasons, Castellucci has some stage-hands wheel out a copy of a decaying Greek frieze, over which (again, explained by title cards) a 1960 recording of imprisoned Black laborers singing a stone-cutting song is played. Then, the set-piece is rotated, to allow the scene of two Native Americas (the first time anyone speaks in the show) to unfold. The whole thing is bizarre and uncomfortable. Not only are these two White Italian actors wearing full-body skin suits, but the face-masks feel almost caricatured in order to capture the sort of sharp, angular nose we associate with drawn images of Native Americans like…well, the Washington Redskins’ logo. On a human, it’s so distorting that honestly I was mostly reminded of nothing so much as the scene from Beetlejuice where Alec Baldwin stretches his face to make himself look “scary.” (Except, you know, without the racism.)

The scene is performed as a dialogue between the two, who discuss the encroachment of White settlers onto their lands, with one trying to encourage the other to learn English words and the other doubting the need for it. It’s an attempt to portray linguistic colonialism, but in execution it’s beyond strange. First of all, both performers, to an American ear, are unmistakably Italian when they speak “English” words; however, the dialogue itself is being spoken in Ojibwa, one of the Algonquin languages. (Curious to me is the fact that no expert is listed as having helped prepare this Ojibwa translation: Claudia and Romeo Castellucci alone are credited with the show’s text.) In English super-title translation, it’s even stranger. Not only does the dialogue feel stilted and cliché (they talk about natural features like, you know, “movie Indians” do, and refer to Whites as “palefaces,” which somehow doesn’t strike me as a literal translation of Ojibwa). A brief reference is made to the story which is the heart of the play (barely referenced before, except for a brief interlude after the flag-team scene when a woman gives her very large infant doll prop to some other Puritans), and then it’s all over. The Native American characters, having grappled unsuccessfully with the threat to their continued existence due to European colonialism, are stripped like skin off the performers enacting them – which plays like a sick, full-body sort of scalping – and one of the skins is then draped other a baton flown down from the grid, where it hangs for a minute as the sound of flies buzzes through the speakers. I guess we just witnessed genocide.

From there we get to what passes for the story of the play (only, like, forty minutes in): Two vaguely Puritan (they seem more to be trying to become Puritans than actual Puritans, but it’s painfully unclear) colonists named Elizabeth and Nathaniel. Nathaniel is played by a woman wearing a beard and a body suit, since all the performers are female. They’re starving, the potatoes are rotting in the ground, and struggling to maintain faith. Confronted with adversity, they pray to God, but they don’t seem to know how. Returning to their book of prayer, they grow concerned they haven’t invoked God’s name correctly, arriving at the idea that it should be rendered “I am,” which becomes their perverted prayer. The reference is a corruption of Exodus 3:14, and Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, where the voice of God proclaims that “I am what I am,” what scholars consider a late gloss to explain the origin of “Yahweh” as a name for the Hebrew God. In Hebrew script, the phrase is written as “אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה,” which forms the basis of the two Hebrew characters lowered on a fly during this scene, which spell the corrupted interpretation “I am.”

From here on, the show spirals out of control. Elizabeth has sold their son (an act compared to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) in exchange for iron tools to transform the land and survive. The community believes her a thief, for some reason, and she is to be punished and probably executed, possibly as a witch since later she spews black bile from her mouth and begins speaking in Ojibwa. After this scene, the performance devolves into a series of bizarre folk dances involving swords, maybe a May Pole, lots of female nudity, a reference to the burning bush, and finally a 3-D abstract light-show for some godforsaken reason. During most of this, a series of dates is projected on the scrim of when various laws, political actions, and battles took place, from the origins of the American Revolution to the post-Civil War era. These were not in chronological order and try as I might I couldn’t make heads or tails of them. (Why, for instance, were both the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights represented separately, with different dates? I know that the Second Amendment had precursors, but under that name it only exists once the Bill of Rights was adopted with it as amendment number two.)

If I can try to unpack what Castellucci’s getting at it, I think it’s a fairly simple and even cliché idea, with a bit of a twist. Like de Tocqueville, Castellucci is interested in what led to both the successes and perversities of American democracy. Looking at the early Puritans, he identifies a shift: Religiously austere and living an austere existence, these early colonists wind up severing their roots to Europe’s deep Greek tradition of tragedy, a way of imagining communal experience through which understanding suffering leads to a cathartic sense of communitas. That’s all gone. All they have left is their Old Testament view of the Law – the Hebrews’ contribution to Western culture. But this epochal shift to American democracy requires a perversion even of this religious commandement, a reduction to an existential claim of “I am” (which is why, I guess, it’s presented in Hebrew characters). From this emerges a distinct form of democratic and economic egalitarianism: Rather than through membership in community, it is law – a function in this case of our so-called “democracy” – that grants and denies rights. And this particularly solipsistic condition of identity in turn permits for the sort of economic atomitism that underlies American capitalism, reaching its apex in glossalalia, speaking-in-tongues, which holds that the highest form of speech, conversely, can be understood by no other human at all. It’s an interesting if uncompelling twist on the Protestant foundations of capitalism, and collapses economic and socio-political activity into the same philosophized conditions of the founding of the US.

But if this at all seems interesting to you, in execution Democracy in America is a wreck, and its problems are both dramaturgical and conceptual. At a dramaturgical level, the show doesn’t perform any of these ideas so much as just reference them. And there’s a reason for that. Castellucci’s strength as a creator has long rested in how he engages the history of Western art for ideas, and that in turn is based on a very Continental and Catholic experience of Western culture. The intersection of Catholicism and cultural product produces iconography and complex symbolism engaged with through ritualistic social practices dating back centuries. Considering the experience of people like himself in Europe, Castellucci has two thousand years of representation to draw upon and explore. But considering the United States, that’s not the same. The austerity of the early colonial experience coupled with the austerity of their religious practice does strike away a lot of the European tradition they emerged from, at the same time that they replaced it with little else. Whereas Europe has plenty of iconography to work with, in the US we only represented ideas after the fact, based upon the intertwining of myth and phantasmagoria.

Last year, Peak Performances presented an equally troubling and disappointing work by Spain’s Angélica Liddell, which peddled in much the same imagery of Puritans and Early America, called This Brief Tragedy of the Flesh. In it, she made use of a loop of Buffalo Dance, an 1894 short film of Sioux dancing. Like Robert Flaherty’s later Nanook of the North (1922), it was originally billed as an authentic document of Native American culture though it was staged (by Sioux performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West sideshow). It’s interesting and unsurprising that some of the earliest American films sought to present the experience of indigenous people, particularly after that experience was politically and socially dominated by White Americans. Just as early novelists like James Fenimore Cooper had done, these pioneering filmmakers were plumbing White America’s mythology of its own founding for content, an after-the-fact, highly ideological and historically revisionist representation. Which in turn makes it so troubling for a European like Liddell (or, in a different way, Castellucci) to make use of these ideas in their work.

If either of these European artists wished to make reference to, say, erotically-charged ecstatic religious experience (as both have), they have at their disposal two millennia of European religious art to pick through. But regarding America’s mythology, it lacks any such representation until much after the fact, when these experiences have already been processed into a wholly psychic library of ideas and functions, a phantasmagoria, which in turn influences the contemporary representations of peoples as diverse as Native American tribes and African enslaved persons. Through representation, they’re rendered simulacra, copies of something that never existed save in the European colonial consciousness. As I’ve written before, it’s not that these artists are wrong to see a difference between the White construction of an “Indian” and actual First Nations peoples – but in appropriating the former and ignoring the latter, they’re not challenging anything. Rather, they are replicating colonialist violence by claiming for themselves the use of image and history tied to actual, living human beings.

Or, put more simply, it’s all fine and dandy to make a show that acknowledges that constructing a mythologized Other permitted for carrying out genocide against them. Good for you, you’ve acknowledged historical fact! But despite genocide, there are survivors who carry on the traditions and identities of those who were mythologized. Today, they continue to be victims of White violence, and to use the false image of them to try to speak to your White audiences about their mutual past is to replicate rather than challenge those forces of colonial violence.

Instead, Castellucci – like Liddell the year before – has presented a show about the making of Americans that peddles in 18th and 19th century mythologies and phantasms. Myths like the idea that the world the early colonists settled in was virgin territory devoid of human intervention or inhabitants. Phantasms about “noble savages” and un-Christian natives. Put through the blender of contemporary European strategies of imagistic theater, these artists arrive at the exact same imagery of silly horror movies like The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015), where the hardships of frontier life lead austere Puritans to toy with the devil in the form of a black billygoat and the uncleared forests are dark sites of un-Christian eroticism. (I’m not exaggerating any of this: These are all specifically from both Castelluci’s and Liddell’s performances and The Witch.)

In the press materials, I was given some notes by Castellucci pre-emptively responding to the anticipated controversy over some of the choices I’ve talked about above. Towards the beginning, he notes:

This show has been staged in various European cities, after debuting in Paris, and now begins its tour in the United States. Here, I believe, a few words of introduction are required: Democracy in America, presented in America, must take into account a history that somehow stretches into the present.

I find this troubling. As a critic who’s spent a lot of time dealing with art created from around the world, I’m acutely aware that what is considered acceptable here in America is not the same in other countries. The issue of race, particularly in presentations of American work, ranges from complicated to outrageous in execution on European stages. A relatively thoughtful exploration of some of the issues was published in the New York Times, with regard to playwright Ayad Akhtar, last year. My point is that I don’t necessarily take it as a fait accompli that a representation seen as offensive or inappropriate in the US must necessarily be read so elsewhere. Issues of representation are complicated, reflecting both what the audience can take away as well as power relationships inherent in the choice to present others. Still, the idea that Castellucci puts forward – that a different issue exists in presenting this piece in America than in Europe – is insufficient. For one thing, Castellucci has sought to represent issues of colonial power and the impact of European colonialism on non-Europeans, while failing to acknowledge that his own choices are reflective – rather than critical – of these privileges and power.

Second, even if it is the case that Americans will read this work differently than Europeans, it’s insufficient to merely “frame” the issue for us and to ask us to look beyond what’s problematic to unpack to what the author wishes us to see. This fails what I refer to as the “Piss Christ Test,” which privileges the artist’s intent (stated or assumed) over what the work does in the world – because representation does do work, regardless of whether Castellucci believes it to, and must not only be treated as a matter of someone’s perspective. And this, in turn, concerns me about the role that Peak Performances played in the presentation, given that they are listed as co-producers. In that sort of role, it falls to them – as the company’s local host – to help ensure the work functions.

Did Peak Performances or Jed Wheeler, its curator, seek to engage actual First Nations artists with regard to this piece? As the only American presenter, did they seek to play a role in engaging such artists with Castellucci and his Italian company, given the desire to present their experience onstage? Performance Space New York just helped to host an international gathering of such artists – the Global First Nations Performance Network – just in January. Did they advise Castellucci of the potential reputational damage to either themselves or his company that the presentation could produce? Was there any attempt to explore what could have made the piece actually work in America, where its problematic choices would clearly be recognized as such? Or was this treated in a vacuum, where it was assumed that it would be gotten away with, a high-culture indulgence by art cognoscenti who would gloss over its racists choices, as happened last year with Angelica Liddell, whose show was given a positive gloss in the Times by Elisabeth Viscentelli?

As someone who believes that theaters in New York and the rest of the United States should be more, rather than less, dedicated to presenting international work – and not just that of well-funded Europeans – it’s deeply concerning to me to see an organization repeatedly make such problematic choices, which disserve communities, audiences, and indeed the artists – their shortcomings notwithstanding – themselves.

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