The playwright looks down at the half-completed page in his battered Smith-Corona, tears it out, starts again. A man (Brian Hemmingsen), urbane and slightly gross, marries a woman (Nanna Ingvarsson). They have a son (Joshua Dick). In the fullness of time, he sends the woman away. He also sends the son away, to the country, where he grows up to be a cold and taciturn man. The woman takes up with a second man. She and the second man have a daughter (Sara Barker), and eventually, another son (Sebastian Ingvarsson-Hemmingsen) and a daughter (Emily Ocasio).
One day, the man visits his favorite house of prostitution, run by the comic Spanglish-speaking Madame Pace (Liz Dutton). There, he discovers that one of the working girls is – his oldest stepdaughter. It merely whets his appetite. Suddenly, the woman appears, screaming hysterically. She and her children return to his house, where they meet the resentful son. At some point – before? after? the second man dies.
Bah! This is terrible! Except for the man, all the characters are one-dimensional.
The playwright has fallen out of love with his story. Worse, it has no commercial possibilities. He tears this page out of his typewriter, crumples it up, and throws it into the overflowing wastebasket. He has abandoned the project, and his characters.
In another part of town, the Director (Bruce Alan Rauscher) rehearses his troupe (Dutton, Jim Epstein, Andrew Ferlo, Anna Lathrop, and Anne Nottage) for a production of a play by that hack, Luigi Pirandello. The Director hates the play, which he doesn’t understand; the actors feel like they are being made to appear ridiculous, and even the Stage Manager (Jon Jon Johnson) has his objections.
Suddenly, the six characters from the abandoned play appear, as if from nowhere. They have been rejected by their author, but they need to tell their story.
When Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author premiered in Rome ninety-one years ago, it caused a sensation – not all of it favorable. (The audience yelled “madhouse!” and Pirandello had to leave by a side exit to avoid hostile crowds). No one had ever seen a play like this before – where characters uproot themselves from one play to find another play in which they can be themselves.
And when the Director decides that he likes their story enough to stage it – using his actors in their place – well, geez Luigi, as they say in Rome. And when the characters laugh hysterically to see the actors reproduce scenes from the characters’ stories (“They are not us,” the man explains) and object when the Director decides to restage the final scene, which in the story took place in several rooms, in the garden for the sake of stage economy – well, that’s metatheater, folks. Add to this the fact that the actors who are playing the characters are in fact characters being played by actors – Ferlo, Nottage and the like – and you have the pleasant little mind-blowing expedition Pirandello intended.
In Pirandello’s day they were not familiar with the Observer Effect, that principle which states that the act of observation will make changes in the phenomenon being observed, nor did they think much about how staging a play inevitably affects its meaning. Now, of course, we understand both concepts.
The film “Argo,” for example, is about the historically recent rescue of six American consulate workers hiding from a hostile Iran in the Canadian embassy. Most of the “characters” in that event are still alive today, including the rescue organizer, Tony Mendez, who was played by Ben Affleck. If Mendez ever cried “he is not me”, or if anyone ever objected to the dramatic touches the producers put into the movie (such as a final scene in which armed Iranian officials in Jeeps chase the departing jet down the runway), I am unaware of it.
As a culture, we have grown to be at peace with the changes art renders to life…even to prefer art to reality, particularly if art gets a large box office. (I myself would like to be played by Ben Affleck. Or, really, by anyone.) We even go so far as to parody our own lives in TV reality shows. And playwrights, unless they operate at the level of Edward Albee, are almost always improved by the insights that theater professionals have into their work during the process of production, and by the changes which come about as a result of those insights.
So in our current art-based (or at least non-reality-based) culture, does Six Characters have the sensational oomph it did in 1921? No, but it’s still provocative and stimulating, particularly when it’s performed as well as WSC Avant Bard is performing it during its current run at Artisphere.
A company still takes a playwright’s heart, or art, in its hands when it performs one of his works, and it is impossible not to feel for these poor, bereft characters as they struggle to see their story – the only thing they have to live for – brought to life truthfully. Pirandello wrote his play so that most of the abandoned characters have only one dimension to their personalities, but the actors (the real actors, not Pirandello’s actors) play those single themes with such authenticity and completeness that we hardly notice that they are, in fact, incomplete. Director Tom Prewitt shrewdly emphasizes the actors’ cynicism, interest in technique, and contempt for the characters as a counterpoint to the intensity of the characters, thus throwing that intensity into higher, and more credible, relief.
Six Characters in Search of an Author
Closes Sunday, Dec 9, 2012
Black Box Theatre at
1101 Wilson Blvd
1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
But the glue that holds this production together is the astonishing performance of Bruce Alan Rauscher as the Director. Rauscher is a veteran of dozens of plays over the last decade or so, but I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen him better. Every ounce of the character’s shrewd resourcefulness oozes out of Rauscher’s performance. There are a couple of plays currently on stage (Mary Rose, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart) in which characters confront impossible events. Rauscher’s Director embodies a unique reaction: with Sammy Glick-like hustle, he seeks to turn the event, however absurd, to his own advantage, and that of his company. Rauscher does tremendous work to establish a character for whom this reaction would be credible, and he succeeds. Rauscher is working with a very strong cast, but nonetheless his riveting performance elevates the play.
Finally, as I’ve noted before, child actors often fail because they are called upon to recreate experiences that they’ve never had, or imagined. In writing a part for a seven-year-old youngest Daughter, Pirandello wisely gave her no lines. Her not inconsiderable task is to look adorable for one hour thirty-five minutes, and to break our hearts. Emily Ocasio nails it.
Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, translated by Carl R. Mueller. Directed by Tom Prewitt. Featuring Bruce Alan Rauscher, Jon Jon Johnson (who also serves as Assistant Stage Manager), Liz Dutton (who also serves as Assistant Director), Jim Epstein, Andrew Ferlo, Anna Lathrop, Anne Nottage, Brian Hemmingsen, Nanna Ingvarsson, Sara Barker, Joshua Dick, Sebastian Ingavrsson-Hemmingsen, and Emily Ocasio. Scenic design by Collin Ranney; lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke; sound design by David Crandall, who also composed original music; costume design by Lynly A. Saunders, and props design by Kristen Pilgrim. Jeff Phillips is the Stage Manager. Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Tim Treanor