Testing the bounds of theatrical reality

Identity crisis
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 27, 2013

FINDING THEIR WAY Two of the six Characters. 

At the 1921 premiere of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, theater-goers were so thrown by his meta-theatrical bucking of convention that it’s said you could hear them yelling “Madhouse!” in fear and ire. Nowadays, of course, meta is so de rigueur that we don’t blink at it even in our car-insurance commercials. But Pirandello’s whimsicality, strangeness, and ontological anxiety still have the power to haunt, in this drama that explores the dynamics not just of theatrical creation, but of expressed reality itself. Blair Hundertmark directs a vivid, bracing production by the New Hampshire Theatre Project, at Portsmouth’s West End Studio Theatre.

Even before the lights go up on Six Characters, its actors are blurring proscenium lines: As we enter and find seats, what will turn out to be the Leading Man (Eric St. Cyr) sprawls on a bench while another Actor (Fred Calcinari) reads the paper, and the Stage Manager (Robin Fowler) wanders through occasionally with a clipboard. They’re all waiting for the arrival of their Director (CJ Lewis), their Leading Lady (Heather Glenn Wixson), and the rehearsal of a Pirandello play. But once everyone’s onstage and under way with the boring banalities of blocking and diva-stroking, their rehearsal is interrupted by six mysterious Characters, led by the fervid Father (Peter Josephson) and imperious, suggestive Stepdaughter (Gabrielle Archambault). They have a story — a turgid, melodramatic one — and they are, of course, seeking an author. All the Director will have to do, the Father promises, is write it down.

Naturally, it’s not that simple. The Director has to school the stubborn, intent Father and Stepdaughter in theatrical conventions, and the Characters and Actors quickly square off in space and style. Stage right, the Young Boy (Van Wile), in knickers and cap, and the Child (Gabrielle Iafolla), in eerie white, sit wordlessly on benches and folding chairs, while the angry Son (Kyle Andrew Milner) sits defiantly apart. All the Characters are visually striking in rich, cloak-and-dagger period looks, with the Stepdaughter in sleeveless, bejeweled black and feathered hat, her ever-sobbing Mother (Kate Kirkwood) wrapped body and head in widow’s weeds, and the Father in a dark suit and sinister mustache. Their manners are similarly, zealously quintessential, replete with graceful ardor and flashing eyes.

In contrast, the “real” Actors, under Hundertmark’s direction, are either vapid, like the quizzical, regular-Joe Leading Man, or tacky, like the Leading Lady vamping, bitching and tottering around on high heels. Their lack of “character,” vis-a-vis the Characters, is a point well taken, though I might have liked to see a touch more of an arc over time in how these Actors react to the intruders. The funniest and most effective of the Actors’ scenes is the one that gets the Leading Actors up to act out an exchange that has just been reenacted by the Father and the Stepdaughter. Lewis and St. Cyr are quietly hilarious as they negotiate intonations of a “Good morning” delivered in a whorehouse.

The leading Characters, meanwhile, are simply bewitching. Josephson’s Father has an earnest, ferocious, perfectly articulated intensity, while the svelte, red-lipped Archambault is exquisite as she voices the Daughter’s mellifluous, bitter ironies. Her beautifully paced performance is rich with laconic grace-notes of fingers, wrists, and hips; she is never less than thrilling to watch.

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