Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Review: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God

"On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God' is such a boat-rocking experience that I can't recommend it across the board. But I wouldn't have missed it for anything, says critic David Patrick Stearns.

Review: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God

By David Patrick Stearns

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,


About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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