Millennial Rites


The Italian restaurant clatters with the din of New York at lunch. Director Vasilios Calitsis has stamped out a cigarette at the door and is now scarfing down pasta bolognese. In a few days, he’ll be isolated with his actors in the mountains of his native Greece, eschewing meat and nicotine while rehearsing his production of The World Mysteries, which opens at BAM Majestic Theater October 14. There’ll be no talking among the performers at dinner and only the necessary ”pass-the-salt” at lunch. Now, Calitsis speaks through the uproar about construing theater as a healing ritual, a journey to heightened awareness.

The late Ross Wetzsteon, Voice critic and theater editor, was to have written this article. It was Ross who called Ellen Stewart, doyenne of La Mama, from India in 1990, where he’d been bowled over by Euripedes’s Hippolytos, staged by Calitsis with actors of the Nataka Karnataka Rangayana. Stewart slotted the play into her 1992 season. In 1993, Calitsis began developing a scenario for The World Mysteries, with Stewart in New York and poet and translator Tassos Roussos in Greece. (Stewart is currently fuming over not being credited as a full coauthor.) For five years, Calitsis explored ideas and tactics, set up a foundation to attract sponsors, and presented a 1996 pilot version at La Scarsuola, an Italian fantasy town built to evoke ancient Greece. Until Wetzsteon’s death early this year, he followed the project, meeting with Calitsis in New York and Greece, intrigued by the scope and audacity of the idea.

The work was inspired by the Eleusinian Mysteries. In antiquity, throngs marched and danced the 13 miles from Athens to Eleusis to participate in secret rites centered on the earth goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Initiates came to comprehend death as a clearing of sight and to experience, according to mythologist Carl Kerényi, their ”true and perfect selves.” The Mysteries, wrote a contemporary witness, were meant to ”hold the entire human race together.” Accordingly, in Calitsis’s contemporary The WorldMysteries, the taped voice of the Mystagogue (Irene Worth) recites fragments from such diverse texts as Plato’s Symposium, the Bhagavad Gita, and T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Cast members represent 10 countries. Notable actor-dancers performing in the traditions of Chinese Opera, Kathakali, Kabuki, Noh, and flamenco will signal a melding of cultures. The World Mysteries‘s huge subject yearns toward nothing less than restored peace and harmony as we approach the century’s end, and a healing of the scarred and polluted earth.

A charismatic talker, Calitsis spins ideas about the interconnectedness of religious myths and the mystical nature of performance as embodiment. Questions that have preoccupied him surface again and again in Wetzsteon’s scribbled notes. Can actors experience, not simulate? How can spectators, nailed to theater seats, become participants instead of simply witnesses? How does one develop ritual in theatrical time? One of Calitsis’s solutions is to open up the theater–planting ritual acts in the lobby, disseminating fragrances, having actors utilize the aisles. Transparent wings will reveal backstage movements. ”It’s impossible,” he says, ”to watch a rectangle for two hours if you are not ideally prepared. You come at 7:30 from the outside world, and you have no idea. But the more you feel this movement around you, the closer you can come to exiting from the mind. That’s the most important thing for me.” The text, sung in many languages (including syllables from the Mayan alphabet and the Phaistos disk), becomes less a matter of linear narrative than of mingling vibrations.

When Calitsis says, ”I’m interested in their entering into a state close to ekstasis,” he means the performers as well as the spectators. They don’t simply rehearse; he’s mapped out their every hour. Each night an actor will share a room with a different colleague, so as not to develop a bond with any one person. To realize what it means to serve, people will wash each other, touching only through soap or cloth. ”If you are deeply in contact with someone but don’t touch, the aspect of electricity in your body becomes extremely strong.” This practice, he believes, can create a magnetic force between performers onstage and radiate that to the audience. He’s clearly the director, but he envisions himself more as an intermediary, now understanding ”the difference between having people fulfill a vision and bringing people to a vision that’s there.”

Remember the ’60s and ’70s, when we believed we could change the world? Is The World Mysteries the Age of Aquarius gorgeously recast for the millennium? A 13-foot-high Demeter will confront a Hades whose cloak spreads over half the stage (the costumes are by fashion designer Mary McFadden, who is married to Calitsis). Intermingling, the music, voices, lights, projections, and dancing may indeed take the audience on a profound, even hallucinatory journey. If only Ross could have gone the distance.