Review: ‘Democracy in America’ Misses Our Current Moment

MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The spectacle begins promisingly, provokingly, in Romeo Castellucci’s “Democracy in America”: with a crowd of female dancers in gold-trimmed white bobbing around the stage, each carrying a furled white flag. They look like the most glamorous drill team you’ve ever seen, their long-skirted coats like a runway reinterpretation of a World War I officer’s dress uniform.

The first time they arrange themselves to unfurl the flags, the block letters on them spell out the title of the show, borrowed from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century anatomization of our young nation. Interspersed with further dancing come more, anagrammatic messages: COCAIN ARMY MEDICARE (the drug misspelled, but you get the idea); DECAY CRIME MACARONI.

It appears, then, that Mr. Castellucci, the Italian auteur, has something pointed to say. But while the show, very loosely inspired by Tocqueville, does pay off with hallucinatory visuals and aural overload — a combustible hallmark of Mr. Castellucci’s work — it doesn’t contribute much to our American moment of self-scrutiny.

Presented by Peak Performances through Sunday at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University here, “Democracy in America” is filled with striking tableaus. Mr. Castellucci — who directed and designed the show, and wrote its text with Claudia Castellucci, his sister — layers scrims to blur the action behind them. Softly lit, his scenes often have the smeary quality of a painting, or a nightmare.

As he delves into the American past, though, those scenes don’t add up to much. Religiosity and bellicosity are on his mind, along with racism and the eradication of Native American languages.

We glimpse dancing, whirling rituals touched with magic and menace; we hear a work song from the South, and people speaking in tongues; in crisply projected text, we see a series of landmark dates in the formation of the United States.

We observe a pair of early white settlers after a disastrous harvest. He insists on believing that God will provide; she, ailing and on the verge of despair, dares to doubt this. Then, in a mad frenzy, she rips her top open to expose her bare chest. Along with other instances of women inexplicably peeling their clothes off, it may make you suspect that Mr. Castellucci’s use of an all-female cast is not rooted in equality.

There is also a bizarrely wrong-footed scene between two Ojibwe people, which the dialogue (in Ojibwe and English) and actors’ tone suggest is meant to be sympathetic and respectful. But the performers, both white, are clad in bodysuits and head-encasing masks to make them look Ojibwe, an act of representation that in contemporary American culture crosses a glaring line.

The Ojibwe are the only people in this show’s strange and heightened landscape who, with those stiff masks, are made to appear and sound alien — not less than human, maybe, but other than human. No matter the intent, it is a self-sabotaging choice.

“Democracy in America” arrives at a time when our domestic theater — in works like this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Fairview,” and “What the Constitution Means to Me” (on Broadway, for goodness’ sake) — has embarked on an intense investigation of the nation’s soul, the sins that have misshapen it and the virtues that might redeem it after all.

But this is a shallow, scattershot show: highbrow style without the substance to back it up.

Democracy in America
Through May 12 at the Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair, N.J.; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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