There is some levity at the beginning of “Democracy in America,” Italian visionary Romeo Castellucci’s experimental theater piece, which is making its United States debut at the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University, through May 12.
Dancer-actors in military uniforms prance around the stage with flags they unfurl to spell out words: “Democracy in America” and then absurd anagrams such as “Aerodynamic ceramic,” “cocain army medicare” and “decay crime macaroni.” And then countries spelled from some of the letters: “Canada,” “Macedonia,” “Romania,” etc. The music is frantic and percussive, and the dancing, by Castellucci’s all-female troupe, is precisely calibrated, with swellings of action and pregnant pauses, to make each unfurling as dramatic as possible.
You can see a snippet of it in the video below (filmed at an earlier, European production).
Later scenes are often darker and more disturbing, and range in tone from stark and primal to dreamlike and futuristic, with folk dancing, from various cultures, comprising a kind of link from episode to episode. The central episode evokes a kind of original sin, with a distressed couple in the early days of the country selling their daughter for agricultural tools and seed.
There are many striking sequences in “Democracy in America,” which was “freely inspired” by the 19th century book by Alexis de Tocqueville. I’m at a loss, though, to say what it all means, even after reading Eleni Papalexiou’s program notes, which maintain that Castellucci “investigates the seeds of the modern democratic regime, long before it grew and spread throughout the western world” and “aims to cast light on issues such as the language of communication, religion, and the notion of community.”
Papalexiou also writes: “Biblical egalitarianism and religious dogmatism have now replaced the democratic function of the city and the experience of Tragedy, which, for Castellucci, constitutes the highest form of personal self-awareness and political identity.”
There’s no way that I could have figured that out on my own, or come up with my own explanation. Which leads me to wonder, am I just not astute enough to comprehend what Castellucci is trying to do? There is no question that he has constructed something that’s visually arresting. But it’s also so abstract that it’s dauntingly incomprehensible.
The final performance of “Democracy in America” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University takes place May 12 at 3 p.m.; visit peakperfs.org.
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