Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is the sort of play that textbook writers love to come across. When it premiered in Rome in 1921, audiences shocked by its content and unorthodox approach to storytelling voiced themselves very loudly. “Madhouse!” was one of the more polite things yelled across the theatre; according to the play’s marketing materials, so was “Incommensurable!” – which seems more likely a deliberate mishearing of “Incomprehensible!” The divided audience at the premiere did not stop a second staging that same year in Milan, which won over crowds. The scandal attracted the attention of a Broadway producer, and the following year an English translation of the play enjoyed a successful Broadway run. In 1955, Tyrone Guthrie adapted the Six Characters again for a New York run, four years before the famous newspaper advertisement that led to the founding of the Guthrie Theater.
The present version of this disturbing, absurdist play comes to Park Square Theatre by way of Wonderlust Productions. Director Alan Berks adapted this 1921 drama by setting it in the context of a modern-day reality TV show. This updates the play, but the added satire is at times inconsistent with the ugliness of the story.
I had not previously seen Pirandello’s play performed, but I was so intrigued by the title that I finally read the play five years ago. It is a very challenging play and I applaud Berks for making the effort to bring it to the stage. The original play begins with a director working with actors at the beginning of a rehearsal when several strange individuals walk in and interrupt. They claim to be characters, abandoned by the author that created them. They are searching for another author to complete their story. These characters include a Father, a Mother, an adult Son and adult Daughter and two young children known as the Boy and the Little Girl. Three of the children are the Mother’s children from a previous marriage and one child was with the current Father.
In this update, Berk places the play in the fictional reality show The Maze (similar to “Big Brother). It is finale night on The Maze, with just three remaining contestants who reached that point through alliances, scheming, and back stabbing. The audience at the play is the live TV audience; the set is a TV studio with an attached house where the contestants live with cameras placed throughout the rooms. The contestants are labeled the “The Flirt” (Rachel Wahlquist) – the only remaining woman contestant, “The Jerk” (Sam Landman), and “The Dude” (Michael T. Brown). All three are fed up with each other and walk out of the house. The show’s producer (Paul LaNave) enters the studio and tries to coach them back into the house for the finale.
While the group is arguing, the “six characters” turn up on the studio screens. The contestants fear they have been set up with ringers who are coming to win the competition. However, the producer is genuinely baffled as the characters eventually make their way to the studio and tell of their plight. The producer sees a way to make a name for himself and get out of making reality TV shows. He agrees to hear their story and have his contestants recreate it.
At this point, the original play takes over in full force. Problems ensue because the characters are very particular about the details of the staging and believe they should do their story themselves. As the story progresses it becomes clear that their storyline concerns pedophilia, cruelty, abandonment, alienation and death. The play raises the typical absurdist theme of what is real and who controls characters: the characters or the author?
Berks’ adaptation suffers from a long buildup and the TV producer’s overwrought nature before the six character’s enter. The play’s language significantly elevates when the titular six characters finally make their appearance. Adam Whisner as the Father does a great job inhabiting a character who is at once a self-excusing monster and the most capable character on the stage. Kiara Jackson as the Daughter plays the role with such energy and self-righteousness that she becomes the central focus whenever she is on the stage. Gabriel Murphy as the Son effectively plays a shadow of a real person who appears to hold a disturbing secret. Sandra Struthers as the Mother has fewer lines, but when she does speak she instantly conveys her character’s horror and helplessness. Sam Landman, Rachel Finch, and Michael T. Brown do well in their contestant roles, but unfortunately are forced to play against characters who have far more depth.
Zeb Hults’ TV studio design presents sight line problems that are dependent upon where you sit in the audience. Although there are screens to show you what action is blocked from your sight, this also distances the audience from the action. In an attempt to add humor, the tweets by the studio staff are shown on the viewing screen; I found this too distracting from the drama on stage and tuned it out.
Despite the play’s slow start, it progressively improves and reaches a startling ending. It is not an easy play to watch and, like Pirandello’s original play, can often leave its audience confused. But for those willing to take on the challenge, it is an absorbing journey regarding the darkness of human nature and the paradox of reality.
The promo for the play’s reality show “The Maze”:
Six Characters in Search of an Author plays at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul through May 8.