Theater and the sacred, culture and faith

“For the mortal man, forgiveness is the closest experience to Jesus Christ’s resurrection”.

With more or less these words, Sister Antonella, a nun from the monastery of Bose, paraphrases Isaac the Syrian in an animated discussion on the theme of forgiveness during the Festival I Teatri del Sacro (Theatre of the Sacred) held from the 19th to 23rd June in Ascoli Piceno. The evangelical theme of the festival’s sixth edition is Works of Mercy.

The Festival is a unique platform to meet together: theater is the starting point to establish a dialogue about man’s True questions. For a few days, Ascoli Piceno becomes a vibrant stage: theatrical art excites, thrills, raises questions and encourages the discussion about the important themes for the man of yesterday, and that of today.

The acts open windows and raise provocations that do not end when the shows finish but resonate in the daily meetings between the public and theater companies. In the morning, spectators, authors and performers confront one another in a fruitful exchange. In the afternoon, the public (during the meetings organized by the cultural association Casa dello Spettatore) goes back to discuss the shows, and prepares for the following ones. It is a sharing nourished by the personal feedback of a collective theatrical experience.


Every meeting and discussion open up unexpected paths. As the meetings progress, the discussion about the theme of forgiveness becomes a heated one and touches sensitive points. It is the heart of the show Settanta volte sette (Seventy times seven). It adopts a phenomenological approach to investigate the complexity of reconciliation in its many facets and takes concrete, lived situations, as examples. The destinies of two socially distant families become intertwined when Luke is killed by Christian. On the one hand, Luca’s brother and his girlfriend try to come by the pain and the time of mourning. Meanwhile, Christian and his sister try to overcome the remorse and try to avoid criminal conviction.

Who is the victim? It is hard to answer. The daily suffering embellishes the scene with vivid brushstrokes of prison life. Meanwhile, we see the couple seized by the grieving of the unacceptable loss of a family member. The impossible task of reconciliation makes for an intense final – made possible by the protagonists’ fantastic interpretation – is the only possible way to return to live and give life, to oneself and to one’s loved ones. A journey of resurrection – as Sister Antonella recalls during the meeting between the spectators – in which the theme of memory is central. Is true forgiveness possible only if we forget who’s to blame? None of those present think they can really forget. Perhaps it is this the space in which grace acts, and perhaps the only one who really forgets our faults is God? Questions, doubts and a common desire to question oneself and open up to the other emerge, and this is already something beautiful.

Authentic encounter with the other is the central theme of another performance: 82 pietre (82 stones). A girl wanders the streets of a small mountain village, covered in snow. She is completely naked, but carries with her a bag with an incomprehensible load: 82 stones. We see two characters that face the problem: a sergeant and a marshal. One lets himself be challenged by the situation while the other finds ready-made solutions, and considers the girl as an obstacle to his personal peace and that of the village. The brigadier kneels down over those 82 stones. He welcomes the girl and her mystery as part of his desire to understand and help. For the marshal, the girl is just a prostitute, one of many. He considers her a nuisance, or an instrument of pleasure to violate, as the show seems to allude. The movement from indifference to the selfish consumption of the other becomes evident.

Even after this show, a heated debate follows. The body and the nakedness of the protagonist are striking. At first, when she is brought in the barracks, she is wrapped in a blanket. Only at the end, after the (probable) rape by the marshal, and the compassionate attention of the brigadier, does she get dressed by the latter. What is the difference between being covered and dressing up? Perhaps covering up expresses the coldness of a gesture that is only apparently altruistic: the minimum indispensable to silence one’s conscience. Dressing up implies a greater attention, a sincere interest to the needs of the other. This raises the question: do we cover up or dress up in our relationships? A take away question to go home with, far away from the intense emotions at the Ascoli festival.

The stimuli are many. The days of the festival put one to the test. Every show makes for food for thought, each meeting launches anew reflections on unknown, and at times, impassable paths. Every show deserves a separate page. Aquasantissima (Holiest Water), deals with the intolerable alleged religiosity of the mafia culture, Sporco negro (Dirty Black) – reluctant to be politically correct – brings to the stage the most common racial prejudices, Solitudo (Solitude), speaks of the celibacy of monastic life avoiding any easy utopia, Niente che resti non amato (Nothing remains unloved), suggests a new contemplative gaze on life and stories – ordinary and extraordinary – of those who preceded us. And Piccoli funerali (Small Funerals) with a delicate touch of poetry and humour, speaks about the mystery of death, a theme forgotten in contemporary society. The pain brought about by the disappearance of loved ones and incomprehensible suffering is accompanied by evocative and liberating music in Stabat Mater. A sketch of dialogue between Islam and Christianity in Simenone and Samir is not missing. In U Figghiu (The Son), the love of one mother is the only way to bring about the identification of Saro, a schizophrenic boy convinced of being the reincarnation of Christ.

In all these shows, the sacred breaks into the human and daily life. Finally, the final show of the Festival, Il Vangelo secondo Antonio (The Gospel according to Antonio) is a powerful act. Here, it is the human that breaks into the sacred. It is the story of Don Antonio, a zealous and evangelical parish priest of a small community. When diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the priest’s world crumbles, burying with it all its points of reference. The dark tragedy of this present-absent man is only illuminated by a new relationship established with Christ. Don Antonio, isolated and confused in his own house and church, removes from the cross the wooden sculpture of Jesus. Frightened and confused, he wanders around dragging with him the sculpture of the Son of God. Is it an unconscious desire to seek comfort and solidarity in the suffering of the crucified Christ? Or perhaps it is a prayerful plea? A simple and deep desire to care for and alleviate incomprehensible suffering? For a priest, attentive to the needs of others to the point that he claims that “the hands that help are more sacred than the lips that pray” the implacable nature of the disease is the condition for turning the remaining days into an active prayer addressed to that body of Christ returned – as in the past, albeit in a different way – to the center of his life. A prayer of attention, care and words whispered without too much (apparent) awareness. It was touching.

For a few days, believers and non-believers, agnostics and atheists alike, united by the desire to think and question themselves about the ultimate questions of man find themselves (re)living, stimulated by theater, tried to discuss the great questions of their lives. The theater becomes – as Proust claims for literature – a magnifying glass by which the viewer can read and scrutinize himself.

In this intimate relationship between man and his life, the spiritual dimension cannot remain absent. If it is vital to avoid the risk of a separation between faith and life – too often viewed as parallel tracks – it is in the cultural universe, understood as the stage of man and his existence, where a fruitful relationship can arise in which faith and life question and mutually enrich each other, for a greater awareness of oneself and one’s role here on earth. And the Festival I Teatri del Sacro can be a small drop in this ocean of need.

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