Intriguing, baffling, provocative, boring are some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think about Romeo Castellucci’s Purgatorio, which recently played at the UCLA Eight International Theatre Festival. Inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, this production by the provocative Societas Raffaello Sanzio represents only a third of the trilogy by the renowned troupe. When I think about Purgatory and its meaning in Dante and in Catholicism, the adjectives I conjured make perfect sense, because Purgatory is all of those things – a place where people go to work out and acknowledge their sins. For souls who want to avoid this confrontation and realization, their stay in Purgatory can be one long, boring and drawn-out affair. This is what Castelluci gives us for the first half hour of his Purgatorio.
The scene is set in what appears to be a fairly well-to-do household where the dutiful wife, showing no enthusiasm for her work, is preparing dinner. It’s a very mundane preparation, lots of cutting, stirring, slow crosses from counter to stove, until she calls her young son to the table. When he enters we know all is not right in this household, as the boy drags himself to the table clutching his toy soldier to his bosom. Eventually the boy escapes through a pair of doors into the main room of the house, where he encounters a giant version of that soldier. We have entered into a time and space not regulated by normal parameters.
The father comes home and some whispered conversations occur between the characters, conversations that are projected on a screen before they happen. The result is that all this seems rote behavior. The father and boy go upstairs separately and then a section called “Music” begins. After what seems an eternity, the father comes down, disheveled and bloody, and takes off his mask and sits at the piano in despair. The boy follows, equally bloody, and eventually sits on his father's lap and hugs him.
Reality shifts again to outside the double doors, where the boy has gone. He witnesses his father caught up in weeds struggling to find his way. This, in turn, transforms back into the living room, where the father is now a spastic (a handicapped actor is used), wrestling with an attendant, slowly going up the stairs.
This, more or less, is what happens, and it keeps us by turns uncomfortable, puzzled, moved, and intrigued, providing a lesson – to face your actions in the here and now – and a sad commentary on familial relationships. Purgatorio played at the Freud Playhouse Oct 28-31.