Looking for a Capital Fringe show to produce next year? How about one about a theater company that’s rehearsing a play, but is interrupted by a rival troupe that wants to put on a different play, resulting in a mashup of the two? Sounds very meta—and exactly like the sort of self-referential mindfuck that reliably makes for a hit at Fringe.
You’re in luck: The play that fits that description has already been written. In 1921. I mentioned this to my plus-one on Sunday, as we left Artisphere after seeing Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. “You’re kidding!” he said. “This play is that old?”
His reaction was a credit not only to Pirandello’s prescient genius, but to the careful, contemporary-feeling updates and cuts in this production by WSC Avant Bard. Gone are the wax masks for half the cast (as mandated by Pirandello’s stage directions). Gone is the pet dog, which is sort of a shame but probably for the best. Gone is intermission. And where the script allows, WSC takes some liberties. When the members of the theater company arrive for rehearsal, and one sits at the piano (which is now a Casio), she plays as Pirandello instructs. But since the playwright didn’t specify what she should play, director Tom Prewitt has the cast burst into the theme song of Slings and Arrows, the Canadian television series about a Shakespeare festival. And later, once the rehearsal has been interrupted by the arrival of six more characters, who start rehearsing their own play in silence, one actor sitting to the side remarks, “Is this Synetic?”
Ha. Here is a Pirandello production mounted for theater geeks, by theater geeks, with a little crossover room for literary theorists and philosophers. There are many reasons why Six Characters is now a play more studied than staged, not all of which WSC manages to overcome. Pirandello’s script calls for a minimum of 18 actors, including two children. WSC successfully pared the cast to 14, and recruited two kids. The company also makes excellent use of the Artisphere’s black box. (Be prepared for a cast member to plop down next to you.) But the actual acting is very, very tricky. The six characters who interrupt the rehearsal have a lot of baggage, and here, this metadrama occasionally becomes too much of a melodrama.
Brian Hemmingsen takes a professorial, formal approach to playing the Father, who stands accused of incest. He overpostures at times as he delivers esoteric lines like, “An illusion is something you have to create. For us it’s a sole reality.” He and his stepdaughter, played by Sara Barker, do most of the talking, and by the play’s end, Barker’s vamping and shrill laughter do begin to grate.
But no matter how good a cast and how many resources a theater has, the biggest challenges facing a production of Six Characters are the countless postmodern plays, books, and movies that have followed it. Pity Pirandello. He made the metanarrative possible, and then, for the next 90 years, other writers went and made him commonplace.