Romeo Castellucci has a way of making Philadelphia Fringe Festival audiences struggle to put together what they have just experienced.
In his first two works at the Fringe - On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God (2013) and The Four Seasons Restaurant (2014) - nothing meshed neatly, and maybe never does with this Italian theater artist, whose work is regularly seen at the Venice Bienniel, Festival d'Avignon and, since 2013, the curated portions of the Philadelphia Fringe.
His often-abrasive theater pieces won't let you look away - whether it's an elderly man struggling to control his bodily functions beneath a benevolent painting of Christ (On the Concept of the Face) or a klatch of Amish women cutting off one another's tongues (The Four Seasons Restaurant).
In Castellucci's third Fringe import, Julius Caesar. Spared Parts (Thursday through Saturday at the Navy Yard), an actor with an endoscopic camera down his throat recites Shakespeare while on video screens we see the interior vocal mechanism of the human voice.
"Sick joker or avant-garde savior?" asked the London Telegraph years back, when Castellucci's more confrontational works began touring internationally, leaving audiences provoked and not necessarily happy. But enjoyment can't be the point in theater where explanatory texts are absent, when upsetting imagery is deployed with little linear narrative, and when audiences must find their own ways into what it means.
"His theater is very imagistic. He's a painter in a way. Very visceral. He hits you in the gut with no regard for any taboo," said Nick Stuccio, president and producing director of FringeArts.
Taboos are one thing. The length of time his pieces spend on them is another. Stuccio's breaking point nearly came in a modernized adaptation of Dante's Inferno, in which a boy is led offstage by a pedophile and heard whimpering - at length.
For me, the near-walkout was Go Down Moses, seen this summer at Montclair (N.J.) State University, in which a woman gives birth alone in a public bathroom, seemingly in real time, with much blood on floor and walls.
In The Four Seasons Restaurant, sounds from an outer-space black hole were amplified with a sound system normally used in a sports stadium. He wanted the rumble to be felt more than heard. Earplugs were mandatory - and provided free by ushers. What was he thinking? When does it stop?
"The theater is a journey toward the unknown," Castellucci wrote in an email. "The stage is a place of alienation, and nothing must be spared to impede this alienation from being vibrant. For that to happen, the highs and lows of human experience must be embraced, not illustrated. . . . No rhetorical certainty, cultural safe haven, or literary support can become the base of theater."
In interviews (as in theater), the 56-year-old Castellucci dictates his terms. He fields questions by email in English but answers in his native Italian - with aphorisms that border on Zen koans:
"Theater is a deep experience of shared solitude."
"For an artist, condemnation and redemption are equal."
"Music is the shortest road toward achieving feeling."
You want to probe him further in ways that are difficult by email. Yet in this forum, Castellucci's usual reserve about revealing personal details - ones that could clutter the reception of his work - slipped a bit. It was surprising to learn of his affinity for certain American artists, his admiration for the 1996 David Foster Wallace futuristic novel Infinite Jest (in which the United States, Mexico, and Canada become one big country), as well as the David Lynch film Inland Empire.
Even those who have known Castellucci for years (like Stuccio) are surpised to hear that his mother's birthplace was southeastern Kansas - a desolate area periodically raked by tornados - that has left a mark on the director. "It seems to me that American culture emerges from the desert of the Old Testament," he wrote. "The encounters and visions that we can have here seem to be older than the European ones."
Deserts call to him - "with a conceptual basis of life, with the tabula rasa, with the invention of everything, with bloodlines, with the law, with a hidden God, with primitive force and violence."
This would seem to be a search for some sort of absolute truth. But he also draws on absolute fiction in the form of mythology, which explains the choice of operas he directs, namely Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, Wagner's Parsifal, and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. "A myth must not be thought of as a dark force from a remote past. It is something that has never existed, yet nevertheless is forever," he wrote. "The myth opens the road for the interpretation of metaphors and in doing so enables access to templates, functions, and structures."
Going to the origins in Julius Caesar. Spared Parts meant that Castellucci examined older source material Shakespeare is said to have examined in writing his play. One speech will be read by an actor who has lost his vocal cords to throat cancer. And the previously-mentioned endoscopic tube, used in another actor, functions "so that a video camera shows us his vocal chords, the carnal origin of rhetoric."
Even with such extreme theater, can Castellucci compete with the extremities of current society, with ISIS attacks, mass killings, and the near-daily pronouncements (whether you agree or disagree with them) of Donald Trump?
"Emotions are the same in every epoch," he wrote, "and Western theater beginning with [ancient Greek] tragedies have always represented . . . the scene of the catastrophe, of error, of existential dysfunction. This epoch accelerates and intensifies that which has always existed."
As for Trump, Castellucci writes: "It is necessary to reflect not on this person, but how he was able to get this far. It's obvious to say this, but it is a cultural problem.
Italian translations by Myrna Edith Goldstein.