Without doubt, a theatre company dedicated to breathing fresh life into the classics has given itself a bold charge. With a Shakespeare, the charge is evident. If anything, companies produce Shakespeare too often for their own good, making a fresh look increasingly difficult. With a play like Six Characters in Search of an Author, written in 1921 by Italian Nobel Prize winner Luigi Pirandello, such a charge assumes a different weight. Though well known among theatre professionals, this modern classic is rarely presented on stage in America. Its philosophical underpinnings and pre-absurdist style have become a part of popular culture, thus raising the question: what exactly would a fresh take on this play look like?
WSC Avant Bard does an admirable job bringing Pirandello’s Six Characters to life. Unfortunately, however, that life, which held such promise, does not resonate enough either intellectually or emotionally beyond the boards. Instead of leaving the audience piqued by the play’s inventive premise or emotionally rattled by the familial trauma unfolding before us, the production comes across more like a museum piece—a curiosity if you will that we’re thankful for having seen but don’t really know why, its contemporary relevance being muddied in the staging.
The premise of Six Characters remains a fascinating one. A contemporary troupe of actors (Liz Dutton, Jim Epstein, Andrew Ferlo, Anna Lathrop, and Anne Nottage) are rehearsing an inane comedy by Pirandello—yes, the very same Pirandello who wrote this play—when suddenly a man dressed for the 1900s emerges from the shadows. He is known as the Father (Brian Hemmingsen), and he is soon followed by his step-daughter (Sara Barker) and son (Joshua Dick), their mother (Nanna Ingvarsson) and two more of her children (Sebastian Ingvarsson-Hemmingsen and Emily Ocasio). The Father informs the troupe’s Director (Bruce Alan Rauscher), that his family are theatrical characters who been abandoned by their playwright. Instead of finishing their story and giving them life, the playwright forgot them leaving these six desperate characters to wander the theatrical world looking for an author who will adopt them. After overcoming the obvious assumption that these intruders have recently escaped from a nearby mental ward, the Director sees within them dramatic potential, particularly after hearing some of the lurid details of their lives. He, thus, encourages them to tell him and his company their tale so that the Stage Manager (Jon Jon Johnson) can record as much of the story as possible for later dramatic use.
A Victorian melodrama then unfolds in fits and starts, which would rival the best of the daytime soaps: a tale complete with infidelity, incest, the death of innocence, suicide, prostitution, and madness. These dysfunctional family members with their hellish tales are trapped as it were in their unrealized, narrow literary world much like Sartre’s existential trio in No Exit are trapped in hell. Each family member would love nothing more than to go his or her separate way and forget everything, but unfortunately all are dependent on the others for their very existences. Thus, they must endure their shame forever, without redemption, unless their stories can finally reach the stage.
The challenge of Six Characters lies in the intersection between the world of the theatre and the world of the playwright’s imagination. For in Pirandello’s play, the playwright’s characters exist much like Plato’s shadows, more real as the lives that they embody and the ideas that they make clear than as the characters real actors will eventually create on stage. In this sense, the playwright’s imaginary characters have the same relationship to the actors as a real life person might have to an actor portraying him. In other words, if an actor were suddenly asked to create you on stage, and you were there to watch the creation, who knows what fireworks might follow. In this case, not nearly enough.
The problem does not lie in the stylistic choices made by the contemporary theatre company members. Each actor plays his or her part believably. Rauscher’s Director, the stern task master, displays a fierce determination as he hammers away on his points, and Johnson’s Stage Manager is comfortably in charge of the proceedings–plus, he can play a little violin when called upon.
… an admirable job
The production’s weakness lies in the stylistic cohesion of the family and its relation to authenticity. To be sure, this family could not be more dysfunctional. Their pain is substantial and their guilt authentic enough. What is lacking seems to be their need for absolution, which one would assume their stories’s enactment by the actors would accomplish. Hemmingsen’s Father and Barker’s Step-Daughter lead the action; they express the qualities of their respective characters, but insufficiently capture their characters’s emotional authenticity. As a result, Hemmingsen remains static in his portrayal while Barker comes across as forced: her repeated laughs, for example, are over-the-top, sounding mad but not rooted in reality. The same could be said for Dick’s Son: the shame he feels for his family’s behavior lacked the dynamism that more interaction would have instill; thus, when he finally explodes he overplays the moment undermining its authenticity. On the other hand, when Ingvarsson’s Mother erupts in anger and frustration, her anguish fills the stage, and the audience reels with her pain. Through her and her silent, damaged children, we understand the difficulty any troupe of actors would have recreating this family’s lives on stage. Not only would the theatre’s conventions and egos interfere with the actors’ ability to portray these characters, but also the actors’ inability to don their deep burden of trauma and guilt would act as an insurmountable obstacle.
And that, it seems to me, is what lies at the heart of Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the age of Reality TV and the Celebrity Apprentice, the actor’s art is losing its validity. Who needs the actor and her study of human behavior when you can take real people, throw them on a desert island, and watch them claws each other’s eyes out? Or when you can take a big personality, dress him up in a flashy costume, and have him dance with the stars? Six Characters attempts to get to the heart of the matter by revealing the difference between the actor as celebrity pretender and the actor as the embodier of those painful, almost inexpressible strains of our culture, asking who will speak for those who have no voice? It’s that difference and motive that Tom Prewitt’s direction of this production leaves unclear.
The scenic elements for the production offered great possibilities. The scenic designer, Collin Ranney, created the theatre’s rehearsal world with large tarps draped over seats and a huge cyclorama opening as sky before us. The costume designer, Lynly A. Saunders, created a distinction between the 21st century actors and the family from the early 1900s. Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s lights effectively captured the reality of the world as theatre. These elements also effectively combined forces at the play’s end to create a visually stunning mystical moment, which left me wanting more such moments to revive the absurdist mystery at the core of this classic.
Running Time: one hour and 30 minutes, without intermission.
Advisory: mature themes.
Six Characters in Search of an Author plays at WSC Avant Bard through December 9, 1101 Wilson Blvd in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.