Dario D’Ambrosi has been a fixture of the off-off Broadway scene since he first appeared at La MaMa almost 25 years ago. As the writer, director and lead actor of his Teatro Patologico, the former professional soccer player (for perennial power AC Milan) has built a body of theatrical work that mines the depths of madness. His performance as Jesus’s torturer in Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ has extended his visibility beyond the theatrical avant-garde, earning him not only a meeting with the Pope, but numerous death threats. Now he returns to La MaMa with a Passion of his own.
D’Ambrosi’s distinctive theatrical vision stems from his research living in a mental institution for three months. At the time, the Italian government had just passed “180,” a law aimed at consolidating and emptying state mental institutions, and his first play addressed the impact of the legislation: “It was a really incredible experience, because I learn a world I can put on the stage.” Soon after performing his first play in Italy, he came to New York and approached Ellen Stewart, who invited him to stage Toto Non Ci Sono [All Are Not Here], entirely in Italian, at La MaMa for a two-week run in February 1980. He has returned nearly every year since.
“Pathological theater” is often compared to Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” for its channeling of dark psychic energies. Like Artaud, D’Ambrosi extends the limits of performer and audience, conjuring a sense of danger as the thin line between sanity and madness is explored. The cruelty is toward the self and is never simple masochism, but is as if the characters are wrestling with cosmic forces that deconstruct consciousness. This never, in D’Ambrosi’s plays, falls into the trap of mere mimicry of madness, which can all-too-easily slip into parody. It is, rather, an unleashing of the inner demons that drive one to insanity, and like Artaud’s notion of theater being like the Plague, witnessing the pathological carries with it the threat of contagion.
At a performance of Frustra-Azioni [Frustration], a solo performance originally conceived in 1994, revived in January 2000, this sense of danger was palpable. Based on the true story of an obsessive butcher who imagines himself a cow, the theater was transformed into a slaughterhouse, as blood streamed down from a pipe onto the white stage floor, threatening to splatter the audience, seated around the square play-space, the stench of milk and blood overwhelming. As D’Ambrosi guts the entrails of a cow, many in the audience leave, and for some that means crossing over some of the stage. One elderly woman slipped on the bloody surface. Though she did leave the theater apparently unharmed (aside from perhaps her clothes and sensibility) the awareness of danger—and the desire for many to flee from the macabre display—crossed over from the merely theatrical. What she and others missed was the butcher copulating with the animal’s corpse, before hanging himself on a meat hook. The flight from the theater conveyed the fear of contagion, as if the madness being performed could somehow rub off on the audience.
In Nemico Mio [My Enemy], a two-person play that made its debut in 1988 and was revived this past May, two inmates at a mental institution—one hyper-talkative (Giulio, played by D’Ambrosi), the other mute (Tommaso, played by Lorenzo Alessandri)—imagine themselves on a beach during recreation time. The fear of contagion is alluded to early in the play, when Giulio warns Lorenzo that one can catch another’s madness by drinking from another’s cup. Though they play out the fantasy of escaping to a beach, Giulio promises Tommaso, “One day I will take you to the beach and I will kill you, Tommaso—’cause the truth is too hard.” We learn that Giulio suffers from the sense that flies are in his brain, and he asks his mute companion, “Do others have flies?” When Tommaso defecates (shaving cream), Giulio carefully sniffs it, touches it, separates it into fours, and then slaps it on his face. Their seaside fantasy is finally terminated by a loudspeaker announcement that “recreation time is over,” and the mental patients are once more locked away from their escapist fantasies and our reality.
Despite the apparent and oft-cited relation to Artaud, D’Ambrosi is cautious about identifying the two theatrical approaches: “I don’t know if it’s really theater of cruelty or just like Bataille says: ‘théâtre de l’impossible.’ I don’t know very well Antonin Artaud but I really love Georges Bataille. So, for me, maybe many things relate from Bataille.” Attacked by Andre Breton as an “excremental philosopher,” and dismissed by Jean-Paul Sartre as a “new mystic,” Bataille’s writing, like D’Ambrosi’s theater, is transgressive and ecstatic, playing with the waste, the refuse of the “real.” When asked if the playing with shit in Nemico Mio is an allusion to Bataille, D’Ambrosi responds simply, “Yeah, oh yeah.” Bataille’s theoretical essays and erotic novels serve as a springboard for post-structuralism, and his meditations on loss in sex and death celebrate the principle of expenditure as an antidote to the emphasis on profit and utility in the Western rationalist tradition. The descent into self-oblivion takes on a mystical resonance in Bataille, a search for the sacred in the absence of the divine, often provoked by contemplation of violent imagery.
Given D’Ambrosi’s affinity with such post-theological thought, it was surprising when it was announced that he was working on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, though the idea of him playing the torturer did seem an interesting bit of type-casting. His appearance as the Clown in Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) proves how well his intensity translates to the big screen, but participation in such a culturally conservative project seemed contrary to D’Ambrosi’s radical persona. However, Gibson proved to be somewhat of a kindred spirit. Claims D’Ambrosi, “we were thinking, he’s so fucking crazy, he’s lost $30 million!”
Again, madness carried with it the threat of contagion. For eight hours per day for 20 days, Gibson “just wanted to make you really crazy.” The resulting scene features D’Ambrosi as one of two Roman soldiers who whip Jesus for roughly 12 minutes of screen-time, first with a stick, and then with leather whips that rip flesh. Arguably the most gruesome scene in a film called by many a sadistic orgy of violence, D’Ambrosi’s character seems to take too much pleasure in his work, leading many to confuse the actor with “del flagellatore” (as his character is known in Italy) and protesting his public appearances.
And was Gibson’s Catholicism contagious? D’Ambrosi claims that, “For me, the church is some place I can listen. I don’t go like I’m so Catholic-crazy like Mel Gibson. Every morning [on the set] we have the Mass in Latin, so every morning he says, ‘Dario, can you come to the Mass every morning?’ I say, ‘Mel, you know, I just did the makeup for two hours, don’t take me every morning to Mass.’ But I like the idea of the church, where you can go and listen and just stay with yourself.”
This marks a change for D’Ambrosi, who admits: “before I was thinking that the theater can be the place where you can listen, like the church. But now I don’t believe in theater like I believed 20 years ago.” This crisis of faith in theater was brought on not by his work on the Gibson film, but by the birth of his daughter. “Before I had children I was thinking the stage play’s incredible, strong. Now I feel the stage is fake.”
But what about the intensity of works such as Frustra-Azioni? “This play was before I have a daughter, the butcher and everything, working really with this incredible energy. Now, if I can write something, really write something so different, I really want to understand what can I do [to] fill the audience with the same [energy] I give with the play I wrote before my daughter. So it’s really like a transition moment for me.”
It was back in May, on the set of the revival of Nemico Mio at La MaMa, that D’Ambrosi described his career in such a transition. At the time, he planned to return to La MaMa this December for a solo multimedia performance, based upon his experiences with the Gibson blockbuster, tentatively titled La Passion del Flagellatore. When asked if he sees himself primarily as a performer, writer, or director, his reply was, “I feel like more [of a] performer. I really come to the stage and tell some story. My script is not like a traditional script. I improvise every night.” Indeed, with his powerful physique and rapid-fire manic speech, a hybrid of broken English and Italian, in both solo performances and in work with a small cast, it is difficult for those familiar with his plays to conceive a pathological theater work without D’Ambrosi performing.
And that is what makes the debut of The Pathological Passion of the Christ such an unexpected turn in D’Ambrosi’s career path. Instead of a solo performance based upon his acting experience in Gibson’s film (as announced back in May), D’Ambrosi has written a script for seven actors and will direct an all-American cast. For the first time in 24 years at La MaMa, D’Ambrosi will not perform, but serve only as the writer-director in this Teatro Patologico production, with dialogue entirely in English. Speaking by phone from his home in Rome, about this “new way of work in theater,” D’Ambrosi’s renewed enthusiasm for the stage is evident when he claims, “we need the theater to really move the people.” Wanting to “take care of the piece from outside,” he insists the story doesn’t “need my physical crazy character I [was] supposed to be in the years before.”
The Pathological Passion of the Christ is a meta-theatrical multimedia work that begins with a staging of the Last Supper, but winds up with Jesus as a mental patient who undergoes brain surgery. D’Ambrosi hopes that “it will be a little bit provocative and I think in a political way it will be incredible,” with the expectation that with this Passion, the outrage will be among cultural conservatives.
D’Ambrosi has always explored the boundaries of the stage and the mind. With The Pathological Passion of the Christ, he charts a new—but no less dangerous—course.
The Pathological Passion of the Christ, written and directed by Dario D’Ambrosi (Teatro Patologico), runs from December 9 – 19, La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East 4th St., Thursday – Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., $15/tdf. Box office: (212) 475-7710. Online ticketing and more info: www.lamama.org