The Genius of Mad Children is Staged With With Puppet Theater and Song

Left: Ashley C. Williams and puppet by Aurora Buzzetti (Italy); right: Dario D’Ambrosi. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

“Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads” is the kind of play that could only be written from the experience of Dario D’Ambrosi, who for over 30 years has worked with mentally disabled people in Italy. It presents a fond theatrical portrait of mentally ill children, whose thoughts are cloudy but whose souls are clear, who are bespattered with pain but whose dignity shines. In fairy tale style, it dramatizes how their imaginations are limitless and how they flourish when they are loved. The story is told as a dreamy fantasy, with live music, singing, dance and puppets. Set and object/puppet design are by Aurora Buzzetti (Italy). Buzetti developed the concept of the puppets in collaboration with mentally-ill actors and theater artists of Dario D’Ambrosi’s newly-established Teatro Patologico (Pathological Theatre) in Rome, based significantly on their ideas and drawings.

Although it deals directly with lives of very troubled people, the play is fantastical and nonthreatening. It is recommended for theatergoers of all ages, including children.

The plays characters are three children named Roica, Titico and Loga, Loga’s mother (who turns into a fairy) and their schoolteacher, who doubles as the children’s psychologist and who is ultimately bewitched by their magical spell.

The actors carry doppelgangers–life-sized puppets by Aurora Buzzetti. The puppets are notably inspired by a 42 year-old actress in D’Ambrosi’s theater in Italy who has Down Syndrome and once carried around a puppet to fight her anxiety and fear of peoples’ judgment. Since then, she has played “Medea, acting in ancient Greek and no longer needs the puppet. When seated in the classroom, Roica and Titico are over come by the repetitious boredom of their math studies. But Loga personifies numbers with magnificently imaginative aspects of personality and imbues them with elaborate life–heart and soul–in a story which is sure to dazzle the audience. The school master, however, is unimpressed. He reports the incident to Loga’s mother, asserting that the girl’s impulsiveness must be controlled. But the power of Loga’s imagination rules the day: her mother transforms into a fairy and the school room–their mental hospital–is transformed into a place of beauty by a swirl of bright fabrics as the chests of the lifesize puppets literally explode with color. Songs describe how the children’s feelings can make the world beautiful. The idea, D’Ambrosi relates, is that mental illness is scary, but mentally ill children have powers inside that can change the world; all they need is to be nurtured with love.

The lead part of Loga will be played by Ashley C. Williams, who played Juliet in D’Ambrosi’s “Romeo and Juliet” at La MaMa last season. She stars in one of this years most controversial horror films, “The Human Centipede.” The Mother/Fairy will be played by Theresa Linnihan, a veteran actress/puppeteer of Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. Roica will be played by Celeste Moratti, who also wrote the play’s English translation. Ms. Moratti is a veteran of D’Ambrosi’s productions of “Days of Antonio,” “Crazy Sound” and “Night Lights.” George Drance will play the School Teacher and Phillip James will play Titico. Original music will be composed by Christian De Gre. Assistant Director will be Alessandro Corazzi.

This is the American debut for Set/Puppet Designer Aurora Buzzetti, who hails from Rome. Her credits there include two productions directed by Dario D’Ambrosi, a play, “Silenzio in sala, arrivano i clowns” (Set Design, 2009) and a film, “L’uomo gallo” (Assistant Set Design, 2008). She graduated in Set Design from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 2008 and has worked prolifically at Teatro dell’ Angelo as Assistant Set Designer and actress. She was set and costume designer of Il fantasma de Canterville” by Oscar Wilde and Ugo Chiti at Teatro Arcobaleno (2009). She has worked as Costume Designer and Assistant Set Designer in Italian films since 2002. She is now 27.

Composer Christian De Gre was born in Mexico City and now lives in NYC. Last year he traveled to Bulgaria and Tunisia to aid in the training and directing of performers from thirty countries as a Theater for Social Change Partner of the United Nations International Y-Peer Network. He was Artistic Director of the La MaMa Spring series, “A Mind The Art Anthology.”

“Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads” is the opening production of the La MaMa Puppet Series, an annual event, curated by Denise Greber, which carries on La MaMa’s tradition, since its inception, of supporting puppet theater artists from all over the world. This year, the series will also feature five other puppet theater events. There will be two works from Poland presented in association with The Polish Cultural Institute, “Chopin-An Impression” by Bialystok Puppet Theatre October 21 to November 7 and “Broken Nails. A Marlene Dietrich Dialogue” by Wiczy Theatre from November 12 to 21. From Brooklyn comes “Wake Up, You’re Dead!,” directed and designed by Aaron Haskell, October 29 to November 7. The children’s puppet theater attraction will be “Folk Tales of Asia and Africa” by Jane Catherine Shaw October 23 to November 7. The festival will conclude with “In Retrospect” by LOCO7 Dance Puppet Theatre Company, directed and designed by Colombia-born Federico Restrepo with music composed by Elizabeth Swados, November 12 to 28. There will be Gallery Exhibit at La MaMa’s La Galleria, 6 East First Street, displaying puppets by noted puppet theater artists, from October 21 to November 7. La MaMa will have its fall gala October 25, celebrating its 49th season by honoring Cheryl Henson of the Jim Henson Foundation. The series is supported by the Jim Henson Foundation, the Trust for Mutual Understanding, NYSCA and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.


The NY Times’ D.J.R. Bruckner wrote, “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 in 1980 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.”

D’Ambrosi has had a theater named Teatro al Parco in Rome, located in a children’s psychiatric hospital. He formed the Gruppo Teatrale Dario D’Ambrosi (since renamed Teatro Patalogico) in Italy in 1979. Last October, D’Ambrosi opened a new theater in a converted warehouse in a norther section of Rome. Named The Pathological Theater, it is home to his resident company of professional actors and a drama school for psychiatric patients. It was described in The New York Times (by Gaia Pianigiani, June 2, 2010) as Europe’s first drama school for people with disabilities, who create original works of theater there as actors, designers and playwrights. Fifteen teaching artists instruct sixty students, including people of all ages who are schizophrenic, catatonic, manic depressive, autistic, and born with Down Syndrome. Many of these, the article relates, have broken through their isolation, found self-knowledge and made themselves understood through theater.

D’Ambrosi speaks excitedly about the theatrical possibilities of these newly-minted theater artists, whose purity of vision and unencumbered passion make their work fantastically original, inspiring and well beyond the artistic reach of conventional theater.

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 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. “Nemico Mio” (1988, revived 2003) was a maverick Vladimir-and-Estragon-type play in which two inmates of a psychiatric hospital, one speaking and one mute, engage in elaborate, poetic fantasies of being at the beach.

In December, 2007, he revived his “Days of Antonio” (originally performed at La MaMa in 1981), a play based on the real incident of an insane boy who had been raised in a henhouse. Celeste Moratti starred in that play and in its subsequent film rendition, which has recently been completed in Italy. The New York Times (Jason Zinoman) credited her with “a boldly feral performance of a boy stuck between the worlds of the sane and the mentally ill and the human and the animal.”

Mr. D’Ambrosi also sustains a prolific acting career. 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”). In 2005, he was seen in “Ballet of War,” about the clandestine immigration of Albanian people into Italy. But his most well known film appearance may be as the Roman Soldier who mercilessly whipped Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The villainous part caused strangers to glare at him scornfully on the streets of Rome while the film was playing. Zachary Pincus-Roth, writing in the New York Times, reported that Mr. D’Ambrosio says he still has dreams in which Jesus – with the face of Mel Gibson – assures him that it was all worth it. The entire experience ultimately inspired him to create “The Pathological Passion of the Christ” (La MaMa, 2004 and film version, 2005), which was based on the idea that many of Jesus’ contemporaries considered him insane.

In July 2009, D’Ambrosi created an original genre of live performance called “The Drive-In Stage” and inaugurated it an hour-long thriller, “Night Lights,” which was a site-specific performance on the block between Washington Street between Spring Street and Canal Street in SoHo. The play portrayed a precarious liaison between a female university professor and a male ex-convict in a city street. The audience of 40 viewed the live action from within parked cars, listening with headsets.

His last production at La MaMa was in December 2009, a novel version of “Romeo and Juliet” which portrayed the marvel of love with the fragility of life, the shock of the moment of total loss and what he calls a “schizophrenia of the world” with innovative and shocking stage effects.

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