Jesus Has Left the Theater

"You are the salt of the world," says Jesus, gazing out at the audience with intelligence, importance, and enough pretension to make the La MaMa crowd shift uncomfortably in their seats. The recorded music of mystic chanting reverberates against the slow sound of Jesus dropping pellets into a wooden bowl. He enters and exits through a womb of white fabric, never shifting his intense and purposeful gaze away from his viewers. After his fourth entrance, accompanied yet again by the inimitable "You are the salt of the world," I'm not sure how much more of this self-important, narcissistic performance I can bear.

Then the sound of a vacuum cleaner sings through the air, and a wave of relief washes over the audience. Perhaps we are not meant to take Jesus quite so seriously after all.

Or are we?

In The Pathological Passion of the Christ (written and directed by Dario D'Ambrosi), things are not always what they seem. The Jesus play that begins the show is soon interrupted by a host of characters, all of them "real" people who comment upon the play. Some think that the man playing Jesus is a brilliant actor, while others berate him for being a fake and a liar. One man dislikes D'Ambrosi's work and claims that directors and actors contribute little to modern society. Others defend Jesus's and D'Ambrosi's right to produce theater, begging the question, "Who are we to judge?"

As the discussion continues, a vague connection emerges that links each of the characters to a corresponding apostle or biblical character. For example, "Judas" is a drug addict who delivers a kiss upon Jesus's cheek, deeming him a great actor, while "Peter" is somehow involved with the opening play but repeatedly denies his relationship to Jesus.

A discourse on the meaning and purpose of the theater is cut short when Jesus, shaking and spitting, is wracked by a seizure. Medical assistants carry him out, and one of the "real" characters transforms into Satan. The last section of the play focuses on sickness and madness, culminating in a stomach-turning video of brain surgery. Mary holds Jesus in her arms as he dies, but before his maladies overtake him he heals a boy in a wheelchair, much to the amazement of the apostles and onlookers.

The difficulty in this play is that D'Ambrosi seems to be commenting fervently on something, but that "something" is never clarified. If he wants to liken actors to Jesus (and directors to God, perhaps?), thereby making a religion of the theater and an audience composed of doubters and sinners, then the play he creates should be worthy of such worship. Yet D'Ambrosi's piece is disjointed and unclear, and desperately needs something solid for the audience to grab onto.

Abstract theater can be very effective, and a clear narrative is not necessary for a performance to make sense. But The Pathological Passion does not offer anything novel or beautiful enough to hold the audience's attention during its meandering explorations and structural inconsistencies. The staging is not terribly creative or visually dynamic, nor does the Pirandellian disruption of the play maintain the momentum it initially generates. The music, lighting, and costumes are hyper-dramatic and theatrical, often wavering between the beautiful and the overindulgent.

Finally, the one thing that might improve the flawed writing is ultimately unable to deliver: the acting never rises above the level of a freshman monologue class, and the "real" characters are even less believable than the "fake" ones.

Of course, with all the allusions and self-reflective commentary flying by, one must consider the possibility that the acting is meant to be subpar, that perhaps the audience is supposed to feel alienated and lost in a meta-theatrical morass. But if these are all means to an end, if these are in fact innovative directorial choices that generate groundbreaking theater, then the end must justify the means, and the audience should ultimately realize the powerful culmination of D'Ambrosi's direction. Unfortunately, the choices feel random, the elements remain separate, and the meaning of the piece is never synthesized into something strong and clear.

But The Pathological Passion may appeal to some theatergoers not despite but because of its strangeness and intellectual obscurity. D'Ambrosi asks a lot of his audience, and his commentary, though hidden underneath layers of pretense and theatrical devices, is waiting to be decoded by those who enjoy a little difficulty in their drama.

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