Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Last night I went to Michigan State University's Arena Theatre to see Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Directed by Nick Tamarkin, it was performed by MSU Theatre students.

The performance was outstanding. It was one of those fascinating shows that has the potential to be outdated and filled with passe references of little relevance to modern audiences. Instead, the show that was staged was engrossing, one which captivated the audience almost from the word go.

It can be deadly to lose an audience in the Arena Theatre. I've been to productions in past years where I've looked across the stage only to see some of my fellow audience members with nodding heads and closed eyes catching a nap until they can escape an over-indulgent performance that treated the audience as irrelevant as authentic emotion.

Not so last night.

Last night was one of those magical experiences where the audience would often breathe as one, taking in oxygen only when the play's dramatic moments deemed it acceptable. It was most notable the first time that two of the "characters" stepped off the sideline and onto the stage for the first time. There was an audible exhalation when their foot slowly lowered onto the stage.

A small moment, but one done so well that it captivated and intrigued.

The play was first staged in 1921 and a fight nearly broke out between those who hated it and those who loved it. The play begins with actors rehearsing a show until they are interrupted by six characters who were created by an author who abandoned them. They are now searching for another author to finish their story so that they can achieve the immortality afforded to all compelling fictional characters.

Pirandello's original script is filled with pokes at his contemporary colleagues and the manner in which plays were being written at the time. Six Characters is a satire, carrying with it the inherent risks of satire--that it will become outdated when the issues of the day are long deteriorated. The MSU production responded by putting in its own references, names, and even a more modern play which it was rehearsing rather than the Pirandello show in the original script.

Whereas Pirandello had specific targets for his biting barbs, the ones the MSU students used sometimes fell a little flat because they didn't match their targets particularly well. It sometimes seemed they picked organizations at random rather than because the barb was particularly suited to fly in that direction.

Thankfully, the other updates made were typically far more effective. The portrayal of a rehearsal was highly believable and the actors frequently moved into the audience as if they were unaware the seats weren't empty.

Particularly strong were the performances of the Father and Stepdaughter who were electrifying both in what they said and what they did not say. There was a vividness about them despite their shadowy, dark costuming and the way they hung about the unlit edges for the first half of the show. They truly begged the question whether they were more real than those who were actors rather than characters.

The thoughtful staging and pacing intensified as the play progressed, mixing the "actors'" unstructured relaxed movement with the stylized, intentional movements of the characters, building up to the heightened climax which left the actors modeling many of the emotions that rippled through the audience.

Purists familiar with the show who dislike changes to the script might have some objections to what is done in this production, but it is executed so well that I have to believe Pirandello would approve and appreciate the updating and vivid relevance the students brought to this classic script.

The very ending is worth discussing as well, but I don't wish to give a spoiler, so I'll wait until the show has closed.

And for a completely different opinion, check out the review by the always insightful Mary Cusak.

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