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Puritans on the verge of a nervous breakdown (and what they have to tell us): Axis Theatre Co. and Romeo Castellucci

The early New England settlers are looking more complicated these days, existing in a state of checkmate that defies their strongest faith. As kids, we’re taught how courageous the “pilgrims” of these religious sects were, with their willingness to brave the unsettled New World (not to mention the Boston climate) for the sake of freedom of worship. And even today there’s some prestige in being able to say that your family “dates back to the Mayflower.”

Two recent theater pieces deliver a horrific portrait of the Puritans’ lives, depicting not only what they endured dealing with exterior elements but also how their religiosity failed to give them the inner fortitude they needed. Neither piece was about God-bashing: they were about the severe cultural restrictions built around particular brands of faith – the nervous breakdowns spawned by a perceived lack of options born of a rigid sense of what one will not do.

All of this has a special ring in our era, where religion-based ideological warfare is tearing our country apart. Though these theater pieces had no relation to each other, you wonder if Randy Sharp, author and director of Strangers in the World at the off-off-Broadway Axis Theater in March and April, was having some sort of mind-meld with Romeo Castellucci, the cutting-edge, mostly-Europe-based theater director whose Democracy in America played last week in Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series.

Program for Democrazy in America at Peak Performances

Both artists have the kind of platform that allows their respective theater pieces to emerge undiluted. Sharp’s well-equipped subtereanean basement headquarters in the West Village has few of the usual New York commercial obligations. Castellucci is beloved on the European avant-garde festival circuit, no matter how unsavory his material (e.g., an anguished, aging man experiencing incontinence against the backdrop of a giant Christ portrait). More recently, he’s been staging opera in Paris, Munich, and any place else willing to submit to his extreme demands (such as having a huge living bull as the visual centerpiece of Moses und Aron).

The two Axis pieces I’ve seen – High Noon and Strangers in the World – deal with classic figures of Americana, but hemmed into fatal circumstances that have no exit or possibilities for conventional heroism.

Specifically, Strangers in the World finds its New England Puritans starving, destitute and crazed, having experienced life support failures at every turn; they’re torn between hoping that their ship comes in (literally) and moving to what they believe is a city in the south where they will find a viable existence. When the ship does seem to come in – and a representative arrives ashore – you’re not sure if he really exists (he seems not to come from their world at all). In a fit of suspicion, the Puritans put him in jail. Extreme measures, intractable positions, a good measure of cold-sweat desperation — this is their world . As with Sharp’s stage adaptation of High Noon, there are no pat conclusions, no sense of liberation, nothing else that could distract you from thinking over the days to come about the issues raised. Her brand of theater is singularly rigorous, every scene tightly focused and with no extraneous elements. In contrast, Castellucci’s individual scenes are meticulously conceived and executed with the eye of a master painter. But the episodes don’t try to hang together in any conventional way. The ball is in your court, on that front.

Ostensibly, Castellucci’s Democracy in America takes its title from the Alexis de Tocqueville study of American society from the first half of the 19th century, but you can’t say this staging portrays, examines or meditates on those writings. Tocqueville is more like a launching pad for a series of seemingly disconnected episodes, some with characters and dialogue centered around Puritans in distress and some utilizing purely visual storytelling. The episodes are held together (somewhat) by text narration projected onto a scrim or stage wall — narration that starts, interestingly enough, with an examination of the speaking-in-tongues phenomenon and proceeds on to much else.

Much of the piece was danced behind a scrim, at one point with the kind of pagan-ish circle dancing that brought to mind Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which the girls accused of witchery initially came under suspicion because they were known to dance in the woods. Elsewhere, though, the combination of thick scrims and abstract lighting brought to mind the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, whose landscapes and seascapes often seem to go beyond the Impressionism of late Monet, even though Turner preceded Monet by a good seven decades.

In much of his work, Castellucci’s starting and ending points can seem a few light-years apart, such that the connection between title and content may appear oblique and perhaps non-existent. Here, whatever Tocqueville may have written in the 1830s, Castellucci portrays New England Puritans of two centuries earlier as having so little knowledge of how to raise crops and be self-sufficient in the New World that we find one family suffering from starvation and illness but unable to go search for help because their last horse has been sold.

Ultimately, the wife sells her baby for seeds and tools needed for farming — adding that the baby was not doing well under present circumstances and may have been better off anywhere but in their starving home.  She also has a meltdown and begins speaking in tongues, though somewhere in Castellucci’s piece, it’s pointed out that, as much as it’s considered to be divinely inspired, such speaking is in a language nobody knows. Like the rotten potatoes that come out of the ground, speaking in tongues appears to have little benefit.

Language is a subtheme in this Democracy in America, in which Native Americans discuss matters in their own language with a concision that English can’t touch. Characters find a fundamental sense of identity with the words “I am.”

Contradictions start piling up. Though the Puritans are identified by their religiosity, the inner expansion of their ongoing spiritual lives ends up having severe exterior limits imposed by the political culture that’s built up around their belief system but may be their undoing when they can’t hold home and hearth together.

That can’t help but raise the church-over-state issue is in our 21st-century America. Linchpins of democracy are devouring each other — consider how freedom of worship is beginning to trump separation of church and state as personal freedoms are limited and legislated by religious groups. Though founded on democratic ideals, the United States — with the Puritans so close to its foundation — the country has always been church-governed to an extent. But now? Does the U.S. have a nervous breakdown in the making as life options are narrowed by religious doctrine?

By chance, the day after Democracy in America, I happend upon a video about Native Americans in drug and alcohol recovery, and the social ills that contribute to their downward spirals. The sociological beginnings, claimed one commentator, can be traced back to a papal edict from 1452 — the infamous Dum Diversas — that basically endorsed slavery of any persons that aren’t white, European believers in Catholicism.

To quote: “We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property […] and to reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.”

Of course, this isn’t the ground zero of slavery — or the beginnings of artificial divisions that objectify and separate humanity — in the name of religion. But Dum Diversas put all the pieces together and made it official. 


  1. Myrna Goldstein says

    Exquisite writing puts in clear perspective just what these shows are about. Masterfully told about theatrical masterpieces. Thank you for bringing this piece to the public.

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