Herbert Go, Stefani Charitou, and Robert Saietta
in Auto Da Fe
(© Piotr Redlinski)
Herbert Go, Stefani Charitou, and Robert Saietta
in Auto Da Fe
(© Piotr Redlinski)
Josh Fox knows how to craft an arresting stage picture. His production of Japanese playwright Masataka Matsuda's Auto Da Fe, presented by International WOW Company at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, is filled with vivid images such as a man holding an open flame next to someone who's just been doused in what looks like gasoline; a woman repeatedly singing the phrase "Open the Kingdom" in a high, operatic soprano while a man jumps maniacally across the stage; and a quartet of soldiers stripped down to their underwear and standing in a tub while others wash the blood from their bodies. But while the show is often visually stunning, it's not always easy to decipher what's going on.

The show purportedly centers on Odysseus A (Robert Saietta), a soldier returning from an unnamed war. However, we never really find out much about him, or the work he does for the intriguingly named History Processing Operation (although Fox's staging suggests it has something to do with plundering the corpses strewn across a battlefield). The character has a doppelganger, Odysseus A Prime (Mike Callaghan), but the reason for this is also unclear. The two men occasionally interact, and compete for the attentions of an adultress named Greeja (Stefani Charitou).

But all too often, the focus of the show leaves Odysseus and his double completely out of the picture. Fox makes use of a large ensemble, who deliver monologues about military battles and a story about a missionary priest burned at the stake, which presumably gives the play its title. In at least one instance, the director assigns a speech that the play indicates as belonging to Odysseus A to other players. And while this choice is in keeping with the work's theme of fractured identity, it further erodes meaningful character development.

The ensemble is very committed in their physical actions, and the energy they demonstrate helps to move the show along, even when the purposefully surreal imagery becomes narratively incoherent. The actors are not quite as adept when it comes to spoken lines, which tend to be delivered in a seemingly disaffected tone of voice that gives no color to the language (translated here from the original Japanese by Kameron Steele and Shigeki Morii).

An exception to this is Brandon Smith's turn as Soldier A, a deceased war buddy of Odysseus A, who returns from the grave to confront his former friend. "There was no victory, Odysseus A," he shouts, "You just up and went home." The hurt and sense of betrayal in his voice is palpable, and provides the kind of theatrical electricity that the entire production could use more of.