TO THINK AND SPEAK AND ACT in the way of madness—meaning, to speak in opposition to madness made popular, shared, atomized, taken as reason, as the natural way of things—only to be seen and heard and understood as madness, as criminality, itself: This is the condition of Moses’s mother, or rather the woman we think of as Moses’s mother in theater artist Romeo Castellucci’s harrowing and brilliant Go Down, Moses.
Spun very loosely from the story of the Biblical hero who led the Israelites to the Promised Land, Castellucci’s play doesn’t tell us the story of the great prophet. Instead, it follows an imagined fate of his mother, the woman who left her infant son in the bulrushes of the Nile so that he may meet his destiny: to free the slaves, to know God, and to deliver divine law. On stage there is no river, no burning bush, no golden calf. Rather, we begin somewhere closer to the present, and without the promise of a grand destiny for the child of this retelling. The only time we, the audience, lay eyes on Moses, he’s a wailing infant, just a few hours old, stuffed into a plastic bag and tossed into a dumpster. What future now?
The first time we lay eyes on the mother, she’s sobbing too, bleeding profusely from between her legs in a public bathroom, pressing wads of stiff paper towels against her to stop the flow. We later see her wrapped in a blanket, sitting in a police station, being questioned about the location of her missing baby. Is it a loss of blood or an abundance of grief or both that transforms her story into something unbelievable—dis-believable? You have done the cruelest thing that anyone could imagine, a police inspector tells her, to which she replies:
Must I acknowledge only this life? The only one, and unjust. Unjust because it’s the only one!
As she explains that she threw her son in the Nile—It was the only way to save him—the inspector becomes more and more distraught. She makes no sense to him. Her words, her experience of time and place, do not seem to line up with the moment they’re in together. Neither does her vision of how to save the world:
We are close, so close to a new beginning of the world.
How can we find a way to say this? How can we say this to the poor?
They are fated to toil.
And so it will be, forever.
No one will ever succeed in changing the perpetual reality of things.
This is why my child, Moses, was born.
He will make a new pact with God.
We must make God turn back. Into himself.
God may not be dead, but he’s certainly not himself these days, and if Moses’s mother is to be believed, only he—with the help of her son—can interrupt the terrible, static spiral of human life.
Castellucci has long been considered a master of stagecraft and design, and his eye is nothing short of marvelous, even sublime. In Go Down, Moses, he keeps those of us stowed safely in our seats at an odd and uncomfortable distance from the play’s unfolding by complicating the stage’s depth of field. It may seem a funny thing to praise the dimensionality of a theater space, but the director—a canny visual artist who builds his plays out of what might be called “living images”—has given this work an uncanny presence through what appears as a simple gesture. Throughout, a scrim remains at the front of the stage like a veil through which we watch the scenes appear and vanish with the dexterity of apparitions. The effect is that of a looking glass, or more to the point, an inverted cinema in which we onlookers are seated behind the screen, the lights on the other side illuminating and projecting the visions in front of us.
The play moves forward via a series of tableaux that come together like constellations, tethered by forces that push and pull them rather than strung along a tidy narrative arc. Two of the most striking: An enormous turbine appears on stage, producing nothing but the sound of its merciless momentum—not forward, but stuck in place, a useless machine that gets us nowhere and does nothing but catch wigs that descend from the ceiling and spin them around and around and around. It is a violent and unrelenting sight. In the penultimate sequence, we watch a primitive, prehistoric woman living in a cave mourn her dead baby and bury it. Surrounded by others, she paints the letters SOS with her hand on the scrim and then hits it, sending ripples across its neat surface, as though trying to shatter the membrane between us and them.
One may leave Castellucci’s violent world understanding that stories are perilous things too—what we tell ourselves to live, of course, but as well to abandon, to imprison, to diagnose. Go Down, Moses may be most striking in the way that it connects us to the experience of a certain chaos—marvelous, nightmarish—and to a feral, untamable present to which we all sooner or later will be held accountable, whether we understand it—whether it means something—or not.
Jennifer Krasinski is a writer based in New York.
Romero Castellucci’s Go Down, Moses ran at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University from June 9 through 12 as part of Peak Performances. He will make his New York debut this autumn at Crossing the Line Festival with Julius Caesar. Spared Parts.