In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema, an attractive young stranger arrives at the home of a wealthy Italian industrialist. The guest forms sensual bonds with each family member—including the maid—seducing both males and females one by one. His arrival and departure sets the whole bourgeois family free. Pietro, the son, embraces his budding homosexuality and becomes a passionate painter. The love-starved mother, Lucia, starts picking up young hustlers on the street. The housekeeper blooms into a miraculous divinity. And in the final sequence, the father, Paolo, gives his factory away to the workers, sheds his suit in the middle of a train station, and wanders naked into the natural world. Pasolini’s vision of youth, awakening anarchic desires and bringing change, reverberates with the energies of 1968.
Although—notoriously—there’s almost no dialogue in the film, which uses images of barren deserts to depict the family’s inner tumult, Pasolini later turned it into a novel. Now, in a live stage version, presented by Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Lincoln Center Festival, director Ivo van Hove draws on both sources. In van Hove’s adaptation, characters take turns narrating and voicing their inner monologues—speaking third-person text apparently culled from the novel.
The Dutch company performs Teorema essentially as a series of emotional arias, fluidly linked and often musical in tone. (There’s even a string quartet and four turntables generating ambient sounds.) Van Hove unfolds several individual scenes with intelligence and emotional rigor, but this rotating monologue structure weighs the drama down with a plodding rhythm. The director has always had a special knack for composing physical expressions of unspoken “subtexts.” Here, however, the actors’ bodily demonstrations of inner lives become redundant. Emotions and thoughts are already identified and reported at length in these abstract speeches; the performers’ writhing and shouting just create a surfeit of expressionism, especially in late scenes. When everyone has already taken their clothes off, where is there to go? The father’s final, desperate gesture carries little charge.
Lincoln Center Festival put the production in a large warehouse on Governors Island in part to accommodate Jan Versweyveld’s wide-open set. With modular platforms sliding out of granite wall crevices and a sofa-size flat-screen TV showing desert footage throughout, the space keeps things firmly rooted in the here and now—not 1968 on the verge of upheaval. But this sleek post-industrial sterility holds little allure—it lacks definition, and its emptiness dwarfs the actors and engulfs the sound. When the interior gets destroyed and an inevitable deconstructive mess is strewn across the floor, there’s little drama generated.
The same could be said of the blandly broody father (Jacob Derwig) and daughter (Hadewych Minis); without establishing much personality or social reality in early scenes, their psychological ruptures don’t gather compelling force. Eelco Smits does some fine work as the son, heaving with artistic frustration and untapped sexual potential as he tries to capture his conflicts on canvas. As the Guest, however, Chico Kenzari offers little charisma or specificity; he struts, but comes off as more of a blank cipher than a muse. Pasolini’s film lets us feel how desire for youth can shake up the world, but in van Hove’s more Apollonian version, we’re left guessing in an artful haze.