When American writer Harold Brodkey was first diagnosed with AIDS he began to chronicle his journey with a series of essays. His first essay was printed in the New Yorker in Spring 1993, and he continued until his illness left him too feeble to write, as he detailed in his last entries in the late fall of 1995. A compilation of the essays entitled This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death was first published in 1996. The book made it’s way into the hands of Pippo Delbono, one of Italy’s most controversial theatre creators. Inspired by the book, Delbono went about staging his own confrontation/ conversation with his own mortality, resulting in a piece named after the book’s title translated into Italian; Questo Buio Feroce.
Compagnia Pippo Delbono, is by virtue of its company members unforgettable to behold. In addition to professional performers, the troupe includes individuals from the fringes of society; there is the deaf-mute Bobò (institutionalized in a Naples psychiatric hospital for over forty years before being made a central component of Delbono’s work), Gianluca (a former elementary-school student of Delbono’s mother, who has Down’s Syndrome), former homeless people (including a schizophrenic discovered begging), street performers and musicians. (Bobò and Gianluca play two Harlequins in a stilted game of hide-and-seek that both filled and broke my heart simultaneously). Delbono himself performs with his motley crew of pros, amateurs, denizens, and the compromised. Together they have developed a physical and emotional vocabulary that is refreshing, if not jarring in it’s magical reality; the feelings emoted are raw, the movement and gesture–– sincere and unrefined. The mere presence of this collection of bodies in space, on a stage, reflects the lives they have lived before the Theatre. With this company, the storytellers are those we might usually step over on our way to the theatre. Those on the expertly-lit stage are the battle-blind, scarred, the pathetic–– and beautiful in their bare humanity.
Pippo Delbono, the frontman for this outfit, is most definitely a man of the theatre having earned his creative stripes through an inspiring life of study and performance. He trained with the Odin Theatre, worked with the late choreographic genius Pina Bausch in the Wuppentaler Tanztheatre, also with Iben Nagel Rasmussen’s Farfa Group in Denmark, and continues working along-side Argentina’s famed actor Pepe Robledo. He also spent time in India, China, and Bali studying cultural movement and dance-theatre. His physical presence on stage is that of a bear (with his paunch and scruffy beard), but his movement is full of the gentle grace and precision of a dove.
Questo Buio Feroce is a fierce dance of life, swirling around the open grave of the inevitable end... or is it the beginning? I got the sense this is what Delbono is exploring; his own relationship to his own mortality. To attempt to see death as a part of life, rather than a circling wolf. He vacillates on the subject; fearing, challenging, hiding, protesting, embracing, defying, enjoying... he never presents a clear blueprint for dying, but rather presents an honest and personal exploration–– with all its winding alleys, and grand vistas. The piece plays out on a stark white set, and begins with an unclothed figure lying in a fetal position wearing a white tribal mask that is primitive and naive in nature; he moves about the space with unaffected child-like articulation. Just as soon as I became accustomed to the innocence and simplicity, the voyage took its first sharp turn with the entrance of a nurse, and two orderlies in white Hazmat suits whose presence instantly transformed the space into something clinical and sterile, and our original masked character into something diseased, or detained.
Those in the audience looking for clear or congruent storytelling might find it easier to watch through squinting eyes, because this piece unfolds like a dream; images and sound only anchor the viewer in a ‘story’ for brief moments before any defined edges quickly disintegrate and morph. At certain points, a static figure on stage accompanied by a voiceover, conveys parts of a story. Other times several characters on stage moving in slow, deliberate choreography against a musical score reveals other parts, but even a character monologuing into a hand-held microphone, doesn’t necessarily point in any one direction. Over all I felt like I was witnessing a disjointed human experience suspended (sometimes literally) in an undefined reality. The one form of communication missing from the piece is dialogue between any characters on stage.
But as soon as Pippo Delbono himself, appears on stage, I got the feeling he was already mid-conversation with us: the audience. Even though he doesn’t utter a live (non-recorded) word until the end of the piece, surtitles spell out the narrative of his thoughts, as he breathes in concert with what we’re reading. What he’s visibly experiencing in front of us is deeply personal and unsparing, and in his face you can see unlabeled raw emotion and undeniable need, pass like dark clouds through him. We are his witness; we can confirm, we can judge, or we can join him in his quest. What is clear is that he is seeking clarification. And I realized as in life, sometimes all you can do as the witness, is stay present through the seeker’s ramblings. Rambling might be too dismissive a word in this case, because the offerings on stage are steeped in symbolism and distilled through traditions as ancient and far-flung as Japanese theatre, Greek drama and Christian miracle plays. The construct and execution of the performance seems heavily inspired by a fresh mix of Bausch, Pasolini and Fellini; part confessional, funeral and parade. Images of simple beauty and the grotesque intermingle as if fraternal twins.
Delbono’s exploration, although exhaustive, seems bridled–– there is no yelling, screaming, keening, no violence, or explosions in the piece. He has directed the piece in a manner that is quiet, suspended and sustained: lending a deliberately portentous, ceremonial tone to both the banal and the momentous vignettes that make up Questo Buio Feroce. I must be honest in saying that the spectacle tested my patience at certain junctures, as I struggled to find meaning in what I was watching, or searching for clear plot-points, or conversely, whenever I quickly figured out what the point of a scene was and wished for it the piece to move on. I recognize this battle between logic and surrender, was my own to wage as part of my experience. I then realized the piece was asking nothing of me, but only suggesting options and possibilities. Perhaps the battle between logic and surrender wasn’t too far from what I was witnessing on the stage?
In the end the show won me, as the funereal carnival (bookended by both ancient and innocent Harlequins) made it’s way back on stage, circling a stripped Delbono, who in his repetitive physical incantation, smiles a smile so real and warm for the first time in the piece, that we see an ecstatic peace we can only hope for. The whole experience ended up feeling like an invitation to face my own death, and find my own peace perhaps. I left the theatre feeling like I was slowly stepping out from a hallucination, not quite sure whether it was a dream or a nightmare. And more importantly, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to shake it off... completely.
Questo Buio Feroce is a bold and brave piece executed with an unapologetic voice. The company succeeds in effectively blurring the line between dance and theatre; the pedestrian bodies of these performers can sometimes communicate emotion and evoke real response, in a way that beautiful, chiseled dancer-physiques can sometimes obscure, or distract the viewer from.
There were moments and images that were captivating and haunting and exhilarating, but as I left the theatre, I wasn’t entirely sure the piece worked as a whole; maybe that’s because I felt stranded in someone else’s internal dreamscape of monsters-- both mythical and real. The piece itself offers this final bit of comfort and warning, “Parting, is all we can know of Heaven. Parting, is all we need to know of Hell.” If asked what the piece is ‘about’, my answer would be the same as if I were asked what death ‘is’; I’m not sure. In both cases however, the experience of questing for an answer can be rewarding in and of itself.