Romeo Castellucci: Driving Theater Arts With Imagery

Categories: Theater

Trained as a visual artist, Romeo Castellucci's work on stage draws on the rich legacy of Italian painting in creating images for the audience. But he doesn't stop, always reaching to challenge perceptions -- of what's appropriate, of what's traditional, of what's being perceived from moment to moment.

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Variety has called him "contemporary theatre's most audacious and inventive image-maker," and the visuals from his work are what make an immediate impression -- nudity, simulated violence, audacious character presentation. Yet significantly more than audacious sights populate his performances, including Hey Girl, which opens at the Walker on Friday and runs through Sunday.

The performance follows a girl's journey through birth and adolescence to womanhood. Inspired by a moment where he saw a random group of young women waiting for a bus, Castellucci began conceptualizing a way to incorporate their imagined experience into his work.

"Their silence and the space around them inspired the title. It's such an impersonal way of addressing someone, 'Hey Girl,'" Castellucci says. To the director as a passerby, these women were anonymous. The unnamed woman in the title contrasts with modes of address that invoke someone's name, whether a friend or a symbolic historical figure (such as the Virgin Mary, Joan of Arc and Shakespeare's Juliet, whose images all appear during the show).

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Contrary to the artist's customary process, elements were added one at a time. "Usually, I meticulously plan everything out. This time, we began with an idea, went to the stage, and improvised from there," adding more material each time it was rehearsed, he said. "It was like working on a sculpture, the way Hey Girl came together."

And how does he expect audiences to react? Despite the play's startling visuals, Castellucci says to shock is not his instead. Instead, he says he merely wants viewers to permit themselves traffic down all potential emotional avenues. The United States has been more rewarding in this respect.

To Castellucci, performances don't need a unified message or a political program, and in his opinion, recent European theater has been overly programmatic. "In Europe, there is almost a pedagogical expectation in theater. American audiences are more open to experiment, to letting a piece just make them feel," he says.

Much is made of Castellucci's latest effort as a meditation on femininity. It is that, but much more. A musing on the seductive peril of symbols, a rich visual tapestry -- but more than anything, he says, this is meant to be the portrait of a real person.

And the artist is in there, too. Castellucci quotes Flaubert: "'Madame Bovary, c'est moi.' -- and Hey Girl, it's me."

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