It might have been one of those darned assemblies, the ones that are held at midnight. The intention of the faithful gathered in Santa Ifigênia Church in the heart of São Paulo was not to attend Mass but rather to prevent a show they considered blasphemous from taking place. Finally, exhausted, they withdrew. It was then, at 1 in the morning on November 5,1992, that O paraíso perdido (Paradise Lost) debuted, marking the beginning of Teatro da Vertigem’s trajectory. “At one point, I thought that only the Holy Spirit could bring the play to the stage,” jokes the artistic director of the company, Antonio Araújo.
At the time, a key support for the play’s staging came from the archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns. Araújo had even received anonymous telephone death threats. Since then, some controversy has always accompanied the trajectory of one of contemporary theater’s most successful theater collectives, mostly because of their use of unconventional urban spaces and of the physical nature of their productions, which are the group’s signature features. In the second play of Vertigem’s biblical trilogy, O livro de Jó (The Book of Job) (1995), by Luís Alberto de Abreu, the protagonist flounders around nude, hooked up to surgical paraphernalia on a stretcher at the abandoned Umberto Primo Hospital on the city’s south side. The public, disturbed by the sight, wandered halls that reeked of the smell of ether.
These assaults on the senses marked the end of the company’s first phase at the unused Hippodrome building on the capital’s east side. The task was to stage a production that evoked the massacre of prisoners at Carandiru prison in the project Apocalipse 1,11 (Apocalypse 1.11) (1999). The audacity of the company’s approach to staging continued into the 2000s. In BR-3, the audience navigates the Tietê River as if they are seeing and smelling the real experience of it, and the actors stage the play at points along the way, where the boat stops. “This is the moment where Vertigem leaves behind an idealized metaphysical notion to get down and dirty,” says Silvia Fernandes, a full professor at the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP) who specializes in Brazilian theater from the 1990s. “The group moves then to a dramatic engagement with the present, which is why I would call it political theater – remember the allusion to torture in Job — and theater of the real, that is, connected to reality in that it touches on urban topics and is staged in the streets and in public buildings.”
Araújo, a Minas Gerais native from Uberaba, withdrew from the theater arts program at ECA-USP, where he is now a professor. With seven university colleagues, he launched a research project on language as applied to the movements of actors influenced by the classic mechanical studies of the Irish mathematician William Hamilton (1805-1865). His next step was to imagine these movements in symbolic spaces. “First, we were thinking in terms of the mythic sense of Paradise and the fall of mankind and the body based on works like Paradise Lost by John Milton [1608-1674],” the director explains. “From there, we inverted the game, putting the spectator in a sacred place, like a church.” The company was reborn through these experiences. In 2011, Araújo launched A gênese da Vertigem (The Origins of Vertigem) (from the Editora Perspectiva publishing house, with the support of FAPESP). In fact, this was the director’s master’s thesis, in which he broke down the process of creating Paradise Lost.
Finding the ideal place for staging a play, says Araújo, always comes after the play is written. The task can be shared by playwrights and writers invited into the group, like Sérgio de Carvalho, from the Cia. do Latão, and Fernando Bonassi. The conceptualizing of BR-3, for example, was ambitious. It grew from a search for national identity based in three “Brazils”: the São Paulo neighborhood of Vila Brasilândia, the capital Brasília and Brasileia, a city in the state of Acre. The group traveled by bus to the north of the country with writer Bernardo Carvalho. “On the trip, we experienced predatory modernization, from trash in the waterways to forests that have been destroyed,” says Araújo. The Tietê River came in handy as a backdrop for BR-3, the production of which was coordinated by Professor Silvia Fernandes.
Once in awhile, Vertigem moves away from the urban landscape, as in the case of O filho (The Son), based on Franz Kafka’s Letter to My Father, under the direction of Eliana Monteiro, Araújo’s assistant since Apocalipse. Monteiro used the warehouse at Sesc Pompeia in São Paulo and filled it with discarded domestic objects while also creating intermediary floors. The play was celebrated for the performance of veteran actor Antonio Petrin, 77.
The group’s trademark, however, is the estrangement from and engagement with urban reality, which has already drawn international attention. Bom Retiro 958 metros (2012), a nocturnal stroll through São Paulo’s commercial district, was recently adapted in Chile for a similar district in Santiago.