Questo Buio Feroce: A Response by Salvatore Antonio

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.


Salvatore Antonio said...

Definitely press the 'Read More' option, as it's a lengthy response. ;)

Anonymous said...

From Hanna Cheesman

Pippo Delbono’s post-show discussion on Thursday Jan 27th was illuminating, as many talk-backs are, and gave the work a dimensionality I otherwise did not experience in watching Questo Buio Feroce. If it were my choice, I would follow most shows with some sort of discussion, since (as Delbono put it himself), theatre (at least in his native country of Italy) is not to entertain. It’s not to please, though this may happen. It is an often intellectual space to consider, and subsequently (it is his hope) to experience art and life in a non-intellectual way, that is: in the gut. An emotional or at least non-rational experience. And he obviously believes there is great wisdom in that ineffable, physical/emotional event.
I certainly agree with him, and a few times was moved by some of Delbono’s ideas, his scenography, the imagic presentation he created. I appreciated his inclusion of ‘outsiders’ in its non-pointed, frank way. I liked the nods to contemporary art, his political costuming scenes, the group’s concern with what kind of happinesses we now seek in our lives. Likewise I appreciated the precision with which some of the performers worked their craft. For these reasons, I was interested in his creation. But I strangely felt the reach toward a contemplation of death, the so-named (by Delbono) consideration of the fragility of life (one day we are here, the next...?) to have been perhaps half-hearted. Which would seem unusual, considering that the subject matter (life and death) is hardly a half-way matter.
I’m trying to understand why I felt the whole production was not. quite. there. For a body that has trained for years; for a mind that is contemplative of what he presents; for a soul that is clearly curious, willing and wanting to experience, why did I feel there was little reaching, vigor, passion, within the work? In some ways, I’d felt I’d been had, like I was being asked to take seriously something Delbono himself seemed disinterested in. Something felt tired.
There always exists, in my opinion of theatre, the vignette problem. Lots of ideas, good ones, and the cut-and-paste style that used to be avant-garde, but now is a format in itself. I have no prescription for this, and have used it myself, but the cohesion that was supposed to have been achieved via the Brodkey/AIDS throughline did not resonate. For a director who believes it important to be ‘sincere’, and ‘just’ or ‘right’ in his presentation of things (I am paraphrasing a translation of Delbono’s words), I felt this story a place-marker for the issues I actually found more sincere and emotionally resonant within the work itself. The platform of the Brodkey story meant to hold up the more obscure or esoteric scenes felt rickety. In short: the foundation did not withstand the absurdity; this balance was out of whack.
And that is, in fact, okay. I am happy to say my audience neighbour (a stranger) was deeply moved, and saw the piece as something he was meant to experience at an emotional level. Bravo, Pippo, your goal was achieved! I sincerely applaud this feat. But for me, it required the talk-back for me to feel its profundity, and for me to believe that the creator felt deeply for his project. I am apprehensive in writing that, for who am I to presume I can glean the creator’s personal opinions and feelings about his own work merely through watching it? But, since I’d felt I’d seen this work before in other places, pieces, productions, for me I was happy to have heard Delbono speak about it. I was craving exposure to his personal connection to it, which I did not fully feel in the mere act of watching it.

Dan Daley said...

I want to comment on the cultural experience of seeing this show. I can’t think of anything better than to call it a “cultural experience”. Questo Buio Feroce, the show is packed full of imagery that I can barely scrape the surface of. For me, the Company of Pippo Delbono and Pippo himself are what really put the whole picture together. This is why I refer to the cultural experience as the act of engaging with this artist in the post show discussion and in the continued discussion that followed this past Saturday.

The performance was a mash of fragile pain and lustful strength presented in a series of vignettes loosely supported by themes of death, sexuality and self-preservation. Although not always clear, the work tied itself to Harold Brodkey’s book chronicling his battle with Aids. Amongst this mash of intellectual and emotional discourse, I could always sense an energy in the performers that eluded me as I fought hard grasp the messages I was being given.

It started to become clearer to me during the curtain call at the end. The performers came out and bowed... and bowed... and bowed some more... and our polite Canadian audience kept on clapping... because the company wouldn’t get off the stage and we’re not going to just leave them out to dry, no matter how confused we are about what we just saw... right? And Pippo himself stretched out his arm and counted the three people in the audience who stood in ovation. His disappointed expression spoke volumes.

SIDE NOTE: I’m speaking about the Thursday night performance without any knowledge of the other nights.

This curtain call delighted me because I began thinking why is it that they’re bowing so much? I know that when you catch an Opera show... or especially when you see the National Ballet, they have very long curtain calls, but it’s become the norm. The norm for this company, I think, is that their audiences should greet them with a similar response. And why not, from the sound of it, Pippo is renowned for his work, but does that really matter to our audience?

Listening to Pippo speak after the show really put it together for me. Italian culture is vastly different than Canadian culture. “Gee I could have told you that Dan!” I’m trying to speak informally about this to better understand why our theatrical experience, in Canada, is unique from other places. I think we fail to recognize ourselves as a cultural entity.

Having been to parts of Northern and Southern Italy I’m not a virgin to their lifestyle, politics, perspectives, but never did I get a clearer depiction of what it is like to be an artist than I did seeing this show and hearing this artist speak.

Going back the energy I spoke about earlier. The energy was Pippo’s training in Butoh and Kabuki theatre. The “core” as he described it, was this vibrating energy I could sense in the performers. Never was it more on display than during the fashion run-way sequence. They were moving in those costumes with a tension that made their bodies shake. It was hard to detect and probably invisible to any in the back rows, but it was an essential part of the show.

Knowing this about the work, again reminds me how much we borrow from different cultures. Pippo is clearly influenced by many different artists: Bausch, Grotowski, Kurosawa. I wonder now, how might our theatre, our artists influence him or more immediately, how can his work invade our theatrical scene and influence it? If we are so different and yet the same, why aren’t we engaging more?

Pippo told one audience member that they should not come to Italy to try and make art, it’s not a good time given the current political climate. So then we should be thankful? Maybe he should spend some time in our swimming pool... oh right, we didn’t give him a standing ovation like they did at the theatre they erected in his name over in Paris... shit.

Anonymous said...

From Cole J. Alvis

In the program was an insert with a message from Harbourfront Centre.

Dear Audience Member:

We would like to note that Questo Buio Feroce normally features a performance by company member Nelson Lariccia who, due to sudden illness, will not be able to take part in this Toronto production.
Nelson has worked with Compangnia Pippo Delbono for almost twenty years and his artistry is integral both to this performance and to the company’s larger proposal about difference and its necessity. But on the day of the show’s opening (January 26), company director Pippo Delbono made the extraordinary decision to re-cast the role that Nelson originated and offer it to an artist whom he met only the previous night.

I was fortunate enough to audition for this role and was seen in the afternoon by Pippo’s fellow founding member, Pepe Robledo (featured in the third photograph on the Harbourfront Centre website).

Being asked if I’m comfortable singing “My Way” in my underwear is not how I thought I would be spending my Tuesday afternoon, but I’m glad I did. Auditioning for a play that is not in English is daunting. Fortunately, physical gesture transcends language barriers and the song I was to sing was American.

Growing up skinnier than all the other boys did a number on how I view my body but, as I prepared for my audition, being naked in front of a theatre full of people was not my primary concern. Looking at photos of Nelson Lariccia, I worried they would take one look at this skinny but well-fed kid and cast me aside like Prince Charming does the ugly step-sisters whose feet do not fit Cinderella’s slipper. My thighs, thick from cycling (almost year-round now!) are both the only muscular asset on my slight frame and a dead give-away that I have been afforded a different lot in life than Mr. Lariccia; a homeless person Pippo Delbono met in Naples. I wondered if there are trained actors in the city whose bodies, through hardship or disease, resemble the emaciated beauty of Compagnia Pippo Delbono’s original company member. I also wondered if given the task; would I be able to find this local man (men?) in the few hours before Pippo flew in to watch the evening auditions?

My joe-job is serving steak at the Keg Mansion and I had to work during the scheduled audition so Pepe was kind enough to see me before my shift. Working through the choreography for Nelson’s role reminded me of the power my body has and its ability to fill the room. Simply by being present on the floor my limbs were telling a story, the arch of my back, a slight bend at the knee, how my hand rested above my head. Pepe chose his words carefully and made sure not to mislead, preferring me to find my way into the movement rather than provide direction. Even when I asked how he would like me to sing the song he was reticent, encouraging me to sing it as myself. From the cursory research I had done before I left the house, I naively asked if he would have me sing the song like I was dying. But he was only interested in seeing what I brought to the framework provided. I sang the song for him - I felt like Shirley Bassey. Pepe thanked me and left the room while I put my clothes back on.

Anonymous said...

From Cole J. Alvis


Unable to get Opening night off at work I didn’t end up auditioning for Pippo and was pleased when I heard Jeffrey Simlett, a friend of mine, had the role. On the night of the Embassy Q-and-A, Jeffrey and the entire compagnia were in full form. Particularly touching was Jeffrey’s patter after performing the song. He acknowledged the privilege it was to perform on the Harbourfront stage and his sincerity was palpable. It was exciting to see parts of myself in the varied moments on stage and not just in Jeffrey Simlett’s character. Questo Buio Feroce left me puzzled at times but not without glimmering moments of reflection and an acknowledgement of emotional truth.

In the HATCHLab offered by Harbourfront Centre, An Audience with Pippo Delbono, Pippo spoke of the prospect of doing the show without Nelson as being grave until he decided it was a matter of modifying the painting. He equates his work with poetry, a medium where everyone who encounters it interprets it differently. In the audition, he was not looking for a copy of Nelson but a similar fragility, sensitivity or disposition of the soul and even then, he acknowledged, the show will be different because the soul is different. As a director, he continued, he is constantly working with instability and this experience supports his theory that it is best not to be too attached to anything in the work.

Jonathan Seinen said...

Thanks for your comments here, and for your extensive critique, Salvatore. I wanted to take a chance to pick up on the comments here about the talkback from Hannah Cheeseman. For me, I found del Bono’s comments during the talkback actually distracted me from the experience of the show that I had just seen. His comments, which I appreciated their sentiment and his discussion of the body and of his training, came across as an explanation for the work, rather than an enhancement of it. I often feel that talkbacks should add to the experience, not try to explain it away. The response I had during the show to some of the images – the man in the red dress in the wheelchair, the entrance of the old man with the cane, Pippo del Bono’s incredible dance – gave me many things to reflect on in a non-specific way. And I felt that was the power of this show, this collage.

Also, my experience of a talkback really affected my viewing of PHOTOG. For that show, when the creators came out to discuss the work, I was struck by how much the conversation existed around their own experiences in creating the show, rather than acknowledging the great responsibility they had as artists in sharing the stories of these photographers in conflict zones. Now, granted, their subjects were the conflict zone photographers, but the most powerful moments in the show were the photos projected on the back screen showing people in the midst of conflict, breathing, living, looking into the lens. Those are the people the photographers are representing, those are the people they are responsible to.

I suppose I’m saying that sometimes it is good to stick around for the talkback, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I want to enjoy and appreciate my experience, and take that with me, and sometimes I want to hear about it from the inside. However, in these two instances, I feel, unfortunately, that the talkback diminished my enjoyment and appreciation of the performance. Shouldn’t the work speak for itself?