UNCW Department of Theatre continues their season of exploration with Steve Moulds’ adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Luigi Pirandello was a deeply complicated person who happened to also write, which may be the most polite way to describe him. His work pushed buttons and strummed at chords deep within the human psyche.
Though the 1934 Nobel Prize winner’s body of work is vast, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is probably his most famous play in America or for English-speaking audiences. As Dr. Grimes observes in his Dramaturg’s Note, they have selected a newer adaptation (2012) by Steve Moulds. Much like “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” it both is and is not the script that Pirandello wrote. However, the choices in the adaptation quite beautifully reflect Pirandello’s work. They manage to update its message and still nod to what fans would expect. (Are there Pirandello “fans” in Wilmington?)
So for the purpose of UNCW’s show, the audience is attending an open rehearsal for a touring sketch comedy show (much like Pineapple-Shaped Lamps). Tanner Wicker (as himself), the stage manager, is trying to keep things moving. But a stage manager is never appreciated for what he does, even though without them none of the work would succeed. Of course, the performers, Katie Anderson and Kit Bertram (as themselves), are late and not entirely prepared or focused. On top of it, Tanner is saddled with an inexperienced director, John Williams (as himself), who wants to prove his brilliance, capability and vision. It could have been so simple, but it just won’t be. Such is the fate of all stage managers. If Tanner didn’t know before, he certainly should now.
By now you have probably noticed the above performers’ names are listed “as themselves.” Pirandello, and this show in particular, pioneered metatheatre in modern dramatic literature. So the performers break the fourth wall constantly, discuss the process they are engaging in, and on some level, play themselves.
So is Katie giving a credible performance of herself? Well, I don’t know Katie personally to answer the question, but she does give a credible performance of what the audience expects an ingénue to be in a college comedy troupe. The same can be said for the other three: They perform what we expect to see. In other words, they fulfill the directive of the script.
Everything is moving along just fine for a Shakespeare-meets-“Three Little Pigs” mashup sketch when, all of a sudden, the four realize they are not alone on stage. Actually, they have been joined by six very creepy people in somber, Victorian clothing. Ummm … hello? Of the six, Father (Trevor Tackett) takes the lead in explaining their presence. They are actually six characters with a story to tell, but need an author and a venue. And so they look to the troupe to help.
Tackett turns in one of the best performances I have seen him give. From the beginning, his earnestness clearly is hiding something. What is this bizarre and subtle power struggle with his wife (Savannah Dougherty) and step daughter (Renee Hapeman)? How come the other three, his son (Nicky Taylor), the Boy (Chris Inman) and the Girl (NaSwana Moon), don’t talk? Well, Hapeman’s step daughter makes up for everyone else. She’s got a story to tell and, damn it all, she is going to be heard. The dynamic, the power play with her stepfather is startlingly timely. Do we the audience like her for her truth-telling? For her exposing him for what he is? Or do we want to forgive him? To sympathize with him? To, as he asks, judge him for one moment in his life rather than as a total and complex figure?
Considering the headlines of late, and the larger cultural conversation we are engaged in regarding women as objects instead of people and what those power dynamics can and can’t mean, their interplay could come from any number of newspaper stories. Perhaps, the idea that her questions are being asked at all hit at something we should be talking about. Her justifiable anger, which comes across as very unappealing, almost physically repulsing, is what we should really identify with.
In other words, it’s lot of weirdness for one well-meaning sketch-comedy troupe to swallow. Katie, Kit, Tanner, and John surprise the six with the generational differences of perception. Whatever Patriarchal-shipsteering-bullshit that Tackett’s father was expecting to smooth over the situation with, they are not buying it; Tackett is genuinely surprised. The six all begin with a stylized set of emotions and reactions that thaw and become more genuine as they interact more. It is a subtle but powerful nod to the idea they become more real as more life is breathed into them by their creator.
By contrast our four performers are overwhelming in their humanness. Williams and Whicker play out the endless drama of the artist and pragmatist—one person has a vision and another has to make it possible. It’s a delight. Williams is so swept up in the artistic possibilities and opportunities before him, all sense of reason and arguments to stay focused are lost. He glows with excitement and it is infectious to watch.
By contrast poor Whicker is at his wit’s end. There is a point of reason and reality—not to mention a schedule—and ignoring all three is getting them nowhere. Actually, of everyone on stage, he is the person I most identify with.
There is another aspect to the performances in the show: for the majority of the time on stage, most of the performers are themselves watching a scene play out. Therefore, though they are not speaking or interacting directly with speakers, they must be engaged and engaging because that conceit is a key part of the production. That is almost as captivating as the action center stage. The four performers are so mystified and intrigued at what is occurring. There are still three unresponsive members of the six—one is almost scared to look at them for fear of what might be seen. Conversely, it’s hard to wrench the gaze away, it’s so damn disturbing. Were it not that Tackett, Hapeman and Dougherty demand our attention and demand recognition, the audience wouldn’t know where to look.
I have to say director Ed Wagenseller has knocked it out of the park on this one. There is no question the show explores in a non-pedantic, but incredibly entertaining way, some of the greatest philosophical and psychological questions of the human experience. It is far from simple, but it is approachable. Thanks to Wagenseller and the cast, it is also extremely entertaining—a challenging and powerful night of theatre, art and philosophy.