The University of Rochester's International Theatre Program is playing Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Authorto surprisingly potent effect. It's hard to tell, though, whether that theatrical strength comes from, or despite, director Michael Barakiva's "adaptation" of this modern masterpiece.
Like two other plays from Pirandello's early collection, Naked Masks, Six Characters begins with a theatrical rehearsal that is interrupted and redefined by outsiders. The intruders here are the title Characters, who want the troupe to put their story onstage. Their author, they explain, has refused to do so, in effect abandoning them in limbo.
Of course, the theater Company has reservations. And so will the Characters when they see the distortion of actors playing changed versions of their "real," unchangeable selves. At the end, after a genuine tragedy gets played out and the Characters' children really die, the Company is horrified and the Director complains that he has wasted a whole day.
Initially, it seems that Barakiva is simply trashing Pirandello's great drama. A motley group of loud, young people sprawl all over, throwing things about and breaking them, hollering meaninglessly, while the Stage Manager shouts at them in frenzied fury. Hardly anything they say or do is related to Pirandello's script, and it's all undercut by simultaneous, competing actions and talk from others onstage. A guy lets a chicken out of a cage, then yells when it seems to attack him. Two giggling girls who can't enunciate any lines intelligibly seem to say that they can't appear in the play tonight (which cheered me up). An over-the-top, phony lead actress comes in with a cute, small, hyperactive dog --- but the wrong one is led off. Eventually, the Director makes a big entrance. She's a pretty woman who screams like everyone else and is no more believable.
But when the six Characters enter, in Jane Cox's eerie lighting, costumed from another era, made up in whiteface, and surrounded by swirling vapor, they not only change the atmosphere, but act with commanding intensity. Noshir Dalal's eloquent Father is intensely involving, even in his most abstractly philosophical discussions, and much of what follows sounds like real Pirandello dialogue, despite the occasional intrusion of contemporary vulgarisms. What's more, the Actors grow in integrity as they become increasingly involved in the Characters' story. Amanda Goff's Director builds in authority and honesty of acting style until she is the center of the play, even more so than the Father and his screwed-up family. This contrast between the initial crapping around with the pretense of innovation and the subsequent immersion into the Six Characters' drama seems intended to drive home Pirandello's contrast between theatrical illusion and artistic reality.
Of course, Pirandello's groundbreaking play is about much more than that simplistic contrast. He also explores distinctions between mundane reality and the illuminating, mimetic art of the theater. Ideas of identity, reality vs. illusion, family connections, and how art lies about the truth it portrays also abound. In fact, Pirandello pretended that this play itself is a transference of his own disinclination to tell these characters' story, because he found it less intriguing than the story of their appearing to him and wanting their own lives shown.
Perhaps the cast simply get into Pirandello's intriguing drama and gain effectiveness once Barakiva lets them play it. UR's Theatre Program's young actors have shown great energy, and even bravery, in throwing themselves into experiment. Matthew Wolfe takes some scary-looking stumbles so that we can believe his clumsy Male Lead really does hurt his leg. More subtly, his awful initial acting miraculously grows convincing as the Company's interaction with the Characters evolves. The same is mostly true of Robyn Gonzales' formerly hopeless-seeming Female Lead. And even the Characters initially have some awkward missteps that they quickly grow out of. For whatever reason, Kali Quinn's necessarily strong Stepdaughter at first "performs" the number from Chu Chin Chow with awkward, wrong gestures, while singing in a hooty, off-key voice. But she's fine after that.
It's hard to figure out this production's many contrasts. Robin I. Shane's costumes for the Characters seem ideal, except for the Mother's moldy-looking gauze dress and veil, and her gloves full of holes. Deep meaning intended there? The acting Company all look to be students who didn't change clothes to appear onstage.
Kris Stone's set is evocative, but simple and messy. Those energetic students do a showy scene change for the final 10-minute intermission, during which they run in and out, bringing 50 additional chairs; assemble and raise a 35-foot teaser; lift up the floor-platforms and carry them off; then set up lights and a water pump to reveal a large, working fountain. At that point, Stone's set becomes complex and handsome. But then, the final moments of the play are made into exaggerated, pretentious tableaux, with the Actors appearing just as ghostly and unreal as the implausibly returning Characters.
What's it all about, Luigi? Pirandello wouldn't have a clue.
Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Luigi Pirandello, adapted and directed by Michael Barakiva, plays Wed.-Sat., Nov. 20-23, at Todd Theatre on the University of Rochester's River Campus, at 8 p.m. Tix: $5-$8. 275-4088, www.rochester.edu/college/eng/theatre.