Fort Worth — I spent a few moments mentally translating Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 Six Characters in Search of an Author (Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore) back into Italian as I watched the DragStrip Courage production at Arts Fifth Avenue—and decided the whole thing might have worked better in its original language. Pirandello’s symbolist/absurdist play is a meditation on identity, illusion and reality—but in dramatic terms, much of the stage time is taken up by a mamma mia soap opera of the type popular onstage in the early 1900s, with dark family doings and plenty of slow-building rage and hysteria.
And that, of course, is always better in Italian.
DragStrip founder Seth Johnston generally makes interesting picks for the company, but even good acting from him and some supporting players—plus local theater references and an Avenue Q-style puppet show in the opening minutes—can’t gin up much interest in this story.
Six Characters was once cutting-edge, but now feels like old theatrical news. The play, about a theater rehearsal invaded by a half-dozen mysterious characters—demanding to be put onstage and allowed to live out their story—feels dated enough. But wait! There’s an equally creaky doubling-down, a play-with-the-play recounting the characters’ sad story. It’s a moustache-twirling mellerdrammer about a husband whose unhappy wife runs off with one of his laborers and has a second family. Years later, she finds her daughter, now grown, in the arms of her former husband…not the young woman’s father, but eeeew, close enough.
We see glimmers of how strange and exotic Six Characters must have seemed to the ultra-modern audiences of the early 1920s—and the exploration of the “who are you?” theme, both for the “real” people onstage and the thwarted fictional characters, has a house-of-mirrors complexity that is intermittently mind-tickling. Written in the unhappy days after World War I ended, when the old identities and rules seemed shattered, Pirandello’s mournful, displaced characters must have seemed like kindred souls to many in the audience of 1921.
It’s a period piece, definitely—but of a period and a mindset we have trouble accessing today.
One of the teasers in Pirandello’s original script is that the work being rehearsed by the actors is another Pirandello play—and he is the heartless playwright who’s left these characters unused, unfulfilled—in the stack of lost ideas. There’s a mention in this production that the two plays are from the same playwright, but the line doesn’t make much sense: the actors are rehearsing a perky, girl-power puppet show that clearly doesn’t come from the same author.
Still, Johnston as the Father is a compelling presence, tightly controlled and intense. Lauren Kirpatrick puts in a forceful performance as the Stepdaughter, a young prostitute who finds herself approached by her mother’s first husband. She roams the stage, hips swiveling, like a cat on the prowl—though she’s looking for trouble, not love. Both Nicholas Zebrun and Laura Watson have a few moments as mother and son—the son she abandoned to live with her lover. And Watson with her two younger children (Carly Black as the sweetly sad-faced Baby and Nolan Chapa as the young son with a gun—sure to go off sometime, right?) make a striking trio, haunting the edges of the stage space costumed in Edward Gorey/Addams Family black.
The company of players who’ve been interrupted include an amusing Jace Roscoe as the put-upon Director, a combative Lynda Jo Jackson as the Stage Manager, and Amanda Raeson, Rick Gutierrez and Rebo Hill (all good at voices) as players who aren’t sure they like being ordered about by fictional folk. AFA managing director Deb Wood even makes a scarlet-lady appearance as the Madam who shows the tarted-up Stepdaughter the, er, ropes.
Last summer’s DragStrip Courage production of Harold Pinter’s Old Friends showed just how comfortable this company can be in handling absurdist or surreal works. But without successfully engaging either our hearts or minds deeply enough, Six Characters feels like a hard sell on a hot summer night.