By David Patrick Stearns
INQUIRER CULTURE CRITIC
Rarely is an audience so deadly quiet as during On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, the unofficial centerpiece of FringeArts’ curated section of the 2013 Fringe Festival. The theater piece by Italian director Romeo Castellucci uses a huge Renaissance painting of Jesus as a backdrop for exploring end-of-life issues at their most degrading.
The Societas Raffaello Sanzio production, which opened Thursday at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, has been seen in two dozen countries and has met with extreme reactions, pro and con. A deeply considered, precisely rendered piece of stagecraft, it’s full of doors, perceptual and philosophical, that lead to important places, but never the same ones for any two audience members. It’s such a boat-rocking experience that I can’t recommend it across the board. But I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
After a prelude of electronic sounds suggesting the engine room of a large ship, the first section depicts a modern white-and-chrome apartment in which a once-dignified elderly man suffers repeated bouts of incontinence that are addressed with attentive anxiety by his son. It’s so true to life you want to give the son tips on more efficient care. Then you remember this is theater that uses realistic events as a non-linear series of images that must be individually assembled in the mind of the beholder.
Perceptual starting points fall into two camps: Those who dread being in such a situation in the future, and those who have been there and know it’s survivable but feel everybody’s pain. Beyond that, nothing I’ve read about the show jibes with how it spoke to me.
Being stared down by the image of Christ is said to be unnerving. Though not a practicing Christian, I welcomed it, connecting with the existential melancholy of the eyes while feeling that his mouth was on the verge of smiling. Amid the father’s incontinence, I felt the claustrophobia of being at the mercy of an uncooperative body. Then I wondered if the father was excreting a lifetime of sins, weeping over their toxic accumulation and losing hope for redemption by dumping his chamber pot on himself.
The second section, with eight kids throwing grenades at the Christ image, took that idea to the next level: No doubt influenced by events in Syria, I saw the children as spitting on their own humanity and repudiating sources of goodness that could elevate their lives in ways they, perhaps, will never fathom.
Finally, the video screen carried the familiar assertion “The Lord is my shepherd,” with the word “not” coming and going. The lesson I gleaned: God doesn’t shepherd us from harm, but lives within us to help when tragedy strikes.
7 p.m. Saturday at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $20-$39. 215-413-1318, fringearts.com.