Brains, Wracked

L ittle mystifies an analytic philosopher so well as a continental one. 

For analytic philosophers, the math-like standard of formal logic is the superior way to decide what’s true, while, broadly speaking, continental philosophers reject formal logic’s primacy, looking instead to a kind of radical introspection for truth. What mystifies the analytic thinker about this competing position is that he can quickly see how untenable it is. To the extent that an argument against the power of formal logic doesn’t rely on formal logic, its conclusion is subjective and unjustified, therefore unpersuasive; to the extent that such an argument does rely on formal logic, its conclusion undermines the very argument which produced it.

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But what makes this kind of continental thinking so unproductive in a philosophical context is what makes it so interesting in a creative one: it frees artistic endeavors from the constraints of consistency. It allows for shifting realities and estranged perceptions, and permits contradictory feelings. Done skillfully, it gets not just below the skin but under the bone, then tugs and squeezes and gnaws at what it finds, forcing the viewer to confront that experience with the sort of radical introspection its philosophical analogue treasures.

That’s exactly what’s in store for audiences of the Yale Cabaret this weekend. Inhabited by a plucky troupe of mostly graduate-level drama school students, a dizzying slew of six short-run plays in eight weeks has led to a seventh in nine: Roberto Zucco, opened last night. Written by the French, continentally inclined playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès, and here directed by company member Christopher Ghaffari, Zucco was inspired by notorious serial killer Roberto Succo, active in Italy and France for parts of the 1980s. After being sentenced to a psych ward for killing his parents, Succo would escape and commit several more murders, among other violent crimes.

Fascinated with Succo, the deeply transgressive Koltès—who died in 1989, before the play’s first staging—sculpted his impressions of the killer’s psyche into a morphology, then doubled down, plunging the resulting character into a world defined by “extreme cosmic cruelty,” as Ghaffari puts it. Played with commitment by Aubie Merrylees for Yale Cab, Zucco manipulates and broods and murders his way through events that meander very loosely around Succo’s real-life course. Other characters—a humorously introspective prison guard; an addle-brained teenage girl with an excruciatingly awful family; a wealthy woman with a most extreme case of Stockholm syndrome—pop in and out of a jarring, blistering series of scenes. There are 15 of them over the course of a 70-minute run time, and changeovers, often signaled by a sonic punctuation and a cutting of the lights, are all-out sprints.

If it weren’t already clear, this is not a production for the faint of heart or mind. Everything about the direction and design seems to amplify the source material’s bleakness and fragmentation. The stage, placed right in the middle of the space, has clear sheets of plastic, thick-ply but pliable, hanging down on all sides, creating a reflective physical barrier and throwing a visual softness, a slight blur, over much of what happens. The theater audience, used to enjoying a certain psychological strength in numbers within a unified block of seats, is instead extended and thinned, placed around the room’s edges. (This also lends an aural fragmentation to the crowd’s experience, because an actor standing right next to you sounds very different than one across the room.) Lighting design by Andrew Griffin often engages white fluorescent tubes, casting a harsh, discomforting quality of light. And if you catch a character glaring at you, it’s on purpose, Ghaffari says.

All of this (and more) induces in the audience a visceral sense of key tensions explored in the play: between solidity and immateriality, identity and anonymity, presence and dislocation. It’s a wild, challenging, unnerving experience—in other words, one well worth having.

Roberto Zucco
presented by Yale Cabaret
217 Park St, New Haven (map)
Tonight and tomorrow, 8pm & 11pm
(203) 432-1566
www.yalecabaret.org/…

Written by Dan Mims. Photographed by Christopher Thompson.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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