“Democracy in America” Will Completely Blow Your Mind—So Make the Trip to Jersey to See It!

Italian theater director Romeo Castellucci returns to the Garden State to “excavate our national insanity” in this exhilarating show.

Photo by Guido Mencari/Courtesy of Peak Performances

Remember the cursed videotape in The Ring movies? The unnerving whine and crackle of the soundtrack, the shuddering parade of nightmarish, black and white images: a woman combing her hair in a mirror; a fingertip impaled on a nail; maggots; a stone well in a clearing in the woods. I like to say that seeing a show by Italian director Romeo Castellucci is like living inside that videotape for 90 minutes.

Castellucci batters your eyes and ears with a series of unexplained, archetypally disturbing tableaux that get under your skin. You feel like you’re in the presence of something ancient—and maybe evil. Unlike The Ring tape, you won’t die seven days after watching it. A week later, however, you will be telling your friends what they missed. So don’t you miss it: Castellucci’s excavation of our national insanity, Democracy in America, plays May 9–11.

Taking its name from French essayist Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous 1835 study of the United States in its early days, Democracy in America is anything but a straightforward analysis of our national character. It begins with an intimidating phalanx of women in white uniforms, waving flags that spell out the show’s title, which they then rearrange into suggestive anagrams: carcinoma creamy die, decay crime macaroni, and cocain army Medicare.

democracy in america
Photo by Guido Mencari/Courtesy of Peak Performances

An extended middle section concerns a New England couple in the 18th century, Elizabeth and Nathaniel, who face a judgmental community and a barren land. Elizabeth has lost her faith, and the pressure is driving her mad. She makes the agonizing decision to sell her daughter for farm tools. A final section of the piece is about Native Americans trying to learn English phrases. In this bound-to-be-controversial portion, actors wear dark-skinned bodysuits. When the characters have assimilated into white American society, they peel off the costumes, metaphorically shucking their previous cultural identities. Clearly, race, faith, nature, and survival are the main ingredients that go into the making (and unmaking) of Americans.

His shows feature blood—or other bodily fluids—pouring out of actors.

It might seem like I dropped a ton of spoilers in the paragraph above, but Castellucci’s shows are so uniquely designed and executed, they keep you in a high state of suspense and exhilarated wonder. And dread. There’s always a sense of dread and danger.

Where did this amazing artist come from? Cesena, Italy (near Bologna), is where director-designer Castellucci has, for years, run his company, Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio. Since the 1980s, he and his collaborators have experimented with creating mythic phantasmagoria that is influenced by styles borrowed from rock, comics, movies, performance art, and the paintings of Renaissance Europe (hence the troupe’s name, referencing Raphael).

democracy in america
Photo by Guido Mencari/Courtesy of Peak Performances

The work is starkly compositional, and long sections are wordless, dominated by sound or enacted by children, animals, or machines. He has directed a scene in which (if I recall correctly) a monk was sexually assaulted by a mechanical tree, and another show ended with a hyper-realistic diorama of naked actors made up to look like a tribe of Neanderthals in a cave. His shows feature blood—or other bodily fluids—pouring out of actors. Castellucci’s impeccably realized installations, which have the heightened, immersive aura of dreams, have been compared to the work of visual artist Robert Wilson, but he’s even more radical than that American maverick. He has said his work seeks to depict “a tragedy of the future.”

For Castellucci fans who can’t fly to Italy or other cities in Europe where his work is often the toast of major festivals, Peak Performances at New Jersey’s Montclair State University has been like discovering treasure. The indispensable creation of pioneering producer Jedediah Wheeler, Peak Performances has, since 2005, hosted 75 world and American premieres by such towering artists as David Rousseve, Bill T. Jones, Camille A. Brown, Wayne MacGregor, Liz Gerring, Faye Driscoll, and others.

And every few years, Wheeler brings Castellucci back to the handsome Alexander Kasser Theater to blow minds. If you don’t own a car and want your mind blown, you have to take the bus to Montclair, New Jersey. If you get tickets for Saturday night, though, you can pay an extra $15 and take the Montclair shuttle bus from Port Authority.

However you get there, I promise it will be worth the trip.

Democracy in America
Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University
1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey
May 9 and 10, 7:30 p.m.; May 11, 8 p.m.; May 12, 3 p.m.

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