Theater review: ‘Purgatorio’ at Freud Playhouse

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The orderly aesthetic wasn’t what I expected.

When I asked a theater intellectual friend who knows the Italian scene fairly well what she thinks of Romeo Castellucci, the radical stage auteur from Cesena, she offered a three-word reply, “Artaud, Artaud, Artaud,” invoking the French stage poet Antonin Artaud, who envisioned a “theater of cruelty” in which anguish could be alchemized into mysticism, preferably ringed by fire and doused in blood.

Yet “Purgatorio,” the piece Castellucci created with his company Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio — one of Europe’s preeminent experimental theater collectives — seemed, at least in the early going, more calmly cinematic than Artaudian. The rhythm of this UCLA Live International Theatre Festival offering, which runs through Saturday at the Freud Playhouse, was initially too languid, its surfaces too polished and its mood too vérité to merit such a comparison.

Dante wasn’t much in evidence in the beginning either, though the production (part of a trilogy that includes “Inferno” and “Paradiso”) is said to be “freely inspired by the ‘Divine Comedy,’ ” and there’s no doubt that a few audience members making early exits were as frustrated as souls in limbo by the work’s stubborn refusal to disclose its secrets. I was as bewildered as anyone by the whispered voices and dim lighting, but I was also mesmerized by the assured style of the mise-en-scène (in addition to being the director and co-choreographer, Castellucci is responsible for sets, lights and costumes, and the result is a truly holistic approach to visual storytelling).

I was also fascinated by what was in store for the mother (Irena Radmanovic), son (Pier Paolo Zimmermann) and father (Sergio Scarlatella), referred to as First Star, Second Star and Third Star by projected supertitles that recap, anticipate and extend the dramatic scenario, even though the dialogue is spoken in English. Something ominous was clearly afoot in this sleekly appointed household of peculiarly mixed yet matching decor, and I didn’t understand the small outbreaks of tittering that kept flaring up among spectators.


My guess was that the laughter was of the nervous kind. Anyone who wasn’t on edge either missed the line on UCLA Live’s website about a “family’s appalling ritual” or wasn’t paying attention to small details — the boy’s headache and his monstrous doll (the subject of one of the production’s most original scenes), the mother’s wan solicitude and pregnant silences, the father’s fractured presence and sense of indirect menace.

I would gladly let the cat out of the bag — the spoiler-alert patrol, it’s safe to say, doesn’t have this show in its sights — but I’m unable to describe what exactly occurs when the production moved into a realm of hypnotic explanation, because even when the horror of this family was being revealed, I still wasn’t sure what I was seeing. That’s a sign that Castellucci’s theatrical language is closer to poetry than prose. And the momentary fear I felt of being overwhelmed by a mutating spectacle of unconscious force — as though a beguiling nightmare was insidiously undermining my neurocircuitry — suggests that my friend was right after all about the Artaudian dimension of this director’s work.

Dante even came into play eventually, in the father’s unmasked sin against his boy and the boy’s pardon of his father’s violence and, most especially, in a sequence of hallucinatory images witnessed by the boy that hints at a never-ending cycle of apocalypse and redemption. The translator Allen Mandelbaum notes in the introduction to his English version of “Purgatorio” that Dante examines “the points of passage between waking vision, sharp thought, random thought, reverie, dream and fantasy,” and these quicksilver shifts pattern Castellucci’s procession.

UCLA Live, a co-producer of the work, has bravely brought this piece to the Freud for its exclusive U.S. engagement, and I appreciated the rare opportunity to encounter Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio’s uncommon imagination and to admire an ensemble of actors who can maintain their emotional bearings while being buffeted by a kaleidoscopic swirl. But I also felt as though the piece was somewhat deracinated in this context — presented without its other two parts (which were too cost-prohibitive, not to say logistically challenging, to include) and as part of an international theater festival that transplants into pots important works that in some cases require a more widespread cultural soil for their dark buds to fully bloom.

“Purgatorio” not only stands alone but looks estranged. Yet innovative theater artists, avant-gardists of every stripe and civilian adventurers, particularly those interested in investigating the reach (and limits) of symbolic narrative, should be sure to visit Castellucci’s twilight zone, a place where heaven and hell can be gazed from an earthly vantage that is hardly a safe haven. Trust me: You won’t believe your eyes.

-- Charles McNulty

“Purgatorio,” Freud Playhouse, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, UCLA campus, Westwood. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Ends Saturday. $28-$42. (310) 825-2101, Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes