The Pathological Passion of the Christ

December 9 - 19, 2004
The First Floor Theatre
Thursday - Saturday 8:00pm
Sunday 2:30pm & 8:00pm

Dario D'Ambrosi

You could not act in Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," without being changed by it. So it was for Dario D'Ambrosi, the Italian actor/playwright and founder of "Pathological Theater," who has, for 24 years, held a mirror up to our nature with plays about society's treatment of the insane. The unsettling similarity of Jesus to the mentally ill today was inspiration for D'Ambrosi's latest play, "The Pathological Passion of the Christ," which will be presented by La MaMa in its First Floor Theater December 9 to 19.

Last year, Dario D'Ambrosi was seen worldwide as the Roman Soldier who mercilessly whips Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ." D'Ambrosi writes, "I played the role of Christ's lasher, a difficult and deep part putting me in close contact with all the violence, pain and emotion of Jesus' story. Speaking with many eminent representatives of the Catholic religion made me go deeper into the thought and life of this marvellous character, Jesus. Above all I realized that the majority of the population at his time considered Jesus nothing else but a crazy, mentally disturbed person. My new show wants to deepen even more the analysis of his soul and actions, from a point of view that is different from Mel Gibson's. So I am putting forth this modern version in which Jesus will be brought into an operating room for brain surgery instead of crucifixion."

D'Ambrosi notes that many in Jesus' own time considered him insane, and that some historians have speculated that he may have been epileptic. He writes, "I want to deepen one more aspect: the common points I found between Jesus' story and those of mentally ill boys I have worked with for more than 20 years in my theatrical life. My play shows from a different point of view the consequences and the causes of pain and loneliness that Jesus had to suffer--the same pain and loneliness mentally ill people must often face. In my play, madness is something so necessary and universal that it's going to accompany Jesus in his resurrection, when he uses these hard a``nd provocative words against his people: 'Brothers, you judged me crazy, a liar a hypocrite. You judged me, and that by itself is an enormous mistake….The wisdom of my madness gave a balance to the cruelty of your hearts.'"

It's the first time in his 24 years of La MaMa productions that D'Ambrosi will not be on the stage, playing a character in one of his plays. Instead, he is directing this play with an all-American cast. However, the production will contain some Italian multimedia elements--including video of an operation for epilepsy that he is producing in Rome this week.

The play is somewhat Pirandellian in style. Jesus and six other characters take stage in a theater where he is struggling to put on The Last Supper as a play. A series of confrontations ensue in which the play is obstructed; both Christ and the playwright, D'Ambrosi, are critiqued and confronted by the other characters. These include the Apostle Peter, Satan (represented by the theater's cleaning lady), Caiaphus (the Jewish High Priest in the Gospels, here a middlebrow and a scold), Pilate (a hoodlum who has been gelded in jail), Judas (a sexual compulsive) and Mary (portrayed as a universal mother of the handicapped). The piece culminates in a video "shock sequence" in which Jesus is forced to undergo surgery by a strange doctor--recognizable as Christ's lasher in Mel Gibson's film--and reappears post-operative, with his head shaved.

The cast, in formation as of this writing, includes Arthur Adair (as Jesus), Brian Glover (as Pilate), Peter Case (as Peter), Shawneeka Woodward (as Mary), D'arcy Drollinger (as Satan), Alex Plat (as Judas) and Jonathan Slaff (as Caiaphus).

Dario D'Ambrosi is a former professional soccer player and recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Instituto del Drama Italiano (equivalent of a Tony Award in his country. He played the Clown in Julie Taymor's film version of "Titus Andronicus" (1999) with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. He is director and co-author of "The Buzzing of Flies" (2003), a Hera International film produced by Gianfranco Piccioli, with Lorenzo Alessandri and Greta Schacchi (the latter co-starred with Harrison Ford in "Presumed Innocent"). Most recently, he acted in "Ballet of War," about the clandestine immigration of Albanian people into Italy, which will be released next year.

The NY Times' D.J.R. Bruckner has written, "Any piece by Mr. D'Ambrosi is about each member of the audience. A viewer who surrenders disbelief for a moment will be carried away in an unimaginable world of chaos, wit, bewilderment, mirth, anger, disgust and a kind of sweet sadness, and will leave it with a sense of relief and loss." In the '80s and '90s, Dario D'Ambrosi marched irresistibly into the forefront of Italy's theatrical ambassadors, a cohort led by Pirandello, DiFilippo and Dario Fo. In 1994, he received the equivalent of a Tony Award in his country: a prize for lifetime achievement in the theater from the Instituto del Drama Italiano. D'Ambrosi first performed at La MaMa 24 years ago and has been in residence there nearly every year thereafter. In the US, he has also performed at Lincoln Center, Chicago's Organic Theatre, Cleveland's Public Theater and Los Angeles' Stages Theatre, among others.

Rosette Lamont wrote in Theater Week, "The yearly appearance of the Italian writer/performer Dario D'Ambrosi at La MaMa is cause for celebration." In a definitive essay, she traced D'Ambrosi's aesthetic to his close study of Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille. Critic Randy Gener, writing in The New York Theatre Wire, stated "his theater is a form of social realism that is also an idee fixe. With unusual openness and frankness, his theatrical aesthetic openly embraces the extremity of their forms, emotions and ideas, and it is, thus, called teatro patologico."

In interviews, D'Ambrosi has cited a debt to Commedia dell' Arte, explaining that the art form derived from "normal" people's view of the village idiots, or zanni, of whom Punchinella was a prototype. D'Ambrosi's Teatro al Parco in Rome is located in a children's psychiatric hospital. He formed the Gruppo Teatrale Dario D'Ambrosi (since renamed Teatro Patalogico) in Italy in 1979, the year a law was passed in Italy condemning the closing of state mental institutions, and lived for several months in a psychiatric clinic to better understand these extreme states. Later, in New York, D'Ambrosi spent further study hours in Bronx State and Bellevue's mental wards.

D'Ambrosi's first international "Pathological Theater Festival" was held in 1988 in a mental hospital in Rome. The audience, he says, was made up of people who were normal and people who were sick, and you couldn't tell which were which. He also organized an acting unit in an adolescent ward and helped them put on a play, but unlike the Marquis de Sade in Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade," D'Ambrosi did not invite anybody "normal" to watch. Subsequent festivals of this type have been open to the public and have helped raise money to help Italy's growing population of mental patients who have been "released" from institutions.

D'Ambrosi's La MaMa productions also include a wide variety of notable works. "Cose Da Pazzi (Mad Things Out of This World)" (1995) was a play on useless technical theories of the psychiatrists and the deep state of alienation in which the psychiatric patient lives. "La Trota (The Trout)" had its American premiere at La MaMa in 1986 and was revived in 1997. In this play an old man, trapped by his fetishist acts, turns the trout he has purchased for dinner into a love symbol and the object of an inevitably doomed passion for life. "My Kingdom for a Horse (Un rengo per il mio cavallo)" (1996) was inspired by "Richard III." D'Ambrosi portrayed Shakespeare's villain as a schizophrenic fetus trapped in internal dialogue with his unloving mother. Ben Brantley (New York Times) hailed the production as a remarkable interpretation that "taps right into primal terrain most of us avoid exploring."

In 1998, D'Ambrosi adapted the Peter Pan story into "The Dis-Adventures of Peter Pan vs. Capitan Maledetto" which critic Randy Gener, writing in The New York Theatre Wire, called "the most utterly charming of D'Ambrosi's allegorical explorations of the irrational," warning "You'd be a fool to miss it." In 2000, D'Ambrosi celebrated 20 years of productions at La MaMa with a serial retrospective with three of his most singular plays: " All Are Not Here (Tutti Non Ci Sonno)" (1980, 1989), a solo performance in which an inmate from a psychiatric ward is victimized by neglect in the outside world, "Frustration (Frustra-Azioni)" (1994), a play on a butcher's psychotic obsessions, and "The Prince of Madness" (1993), a story of a crippled man selling human beings who in the end are revealed to be his family. Last Spring, he revived "Nemico Mio" (My Enemy, 1988) to share one of the most acclaimed works of his early career with a larger audience.

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