Tuesday, October 8, 2013

6 Characters in Search of an Author (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Some people like writing negative reviews. Friends have even said to me "But they can be so much fun!" I disagree. Celebration rather than criticism gives me a lot more pleasure.

Which makes it sound as if I'm going to slam Six Characters in Search of an Author something fierce. Actually, no. I'm not. But express my frustration? Note what I think doesn't work? Yes.

To begin, I'm fairly familiar with this play, having seen several productions (albeit none for over a decade) and even having played a small part in it once (and poorly--that bit of awareness has grown over the years). It makes for a very difficult show to put on. The language hardly resembles natural speech at all, at least much of the time, a fact totally in keeping with the subject matter. The Father (Roger K. Weiss) especially is a man given to thinking in abstract and extremely individual terms. Which makes sense. In a real sense he and the other five of the title aren't actually people. They remain now and forever characters in an unfinished play--who've somehow interrupted a rehearsal to demand their story be told.

A weird idea to wrap one's head around. It also contains within it some traps.

But first, let me address a few points. I've seen a few of the people in this cast before now. Weiss for example, as well as Katie Lynn Mapel who plays The Mother (one of the six characters). Frankly, I think the rest of the cast also shows genuine talent. Yet there are several problems. First and foremost, several cast members are too young for their parts. As a result, they cannot help but lack some of the gravitas the roles demand, especially The Mother (Mapel is in her twenties). It feels a bit college-level as a result. How can it not? But to be sure, this is to some extent the luck of the draw.

Frankly, I found more problems with the direction. I hesitate to say this because I met the director afterwards and thought him splendid company. But three problems in this production must squarely belong at his feet. One is simply the blocking. I'm not a fan of actors "wandering" on stage, of which I saw a fair amount. Perhaps that is taste, however. More tellingly, sometimes the blocking contradicted the lines! In the second act there's a black sofa in the center of the stage but the Director (Kari Cowell) then tells the Stage Hand (Robb Conner) to go "get" the black sofa. About the same time The Stepdaughter (Maria Leicy) demands a screen, then later refers to it--despite the fact There Is No Screen On Stage. There's also a stage fight for a bit in the second act that is clearly under-rehearsed.

More understandable, at least to my mind, is a decision made with great consistency throughout, which leads me to believe the director was behind it. Given that Pirandello's work is so often (understandably) listed as "Theatre of the Absurd" it makes sense. At least one can understand why someone might make this choice. But to have the actors and director interrupted by the Six Characters of the title turn out to be...well, bad...does not in my opinion serve the piece. Quite the opposite. Indeed, I must give kudos especially to Nora Reilly who played The Leading Lady and Markus Cummings as The Leading Man for creating actors I believed were bad. Had they themselves simply been bad actors, I would've been pulled out of the story. But I wasn't! So I know these two can act--because they successfully made me believe their characters could not! But this whole choice gets in the way of the author's ideas. We're left with the feeling that if the Six were to find good actors, then their dilemna would be solved. But isn't the whole point that it wouldn't be? The Six exist in a strange way distinct from what any actor can convey, no matter how talented and sincere. Hence the tension, between imagination and execution. Eugene O'Neill for example famously once claimed exactly one actor had ever done a single one of his characters justice. Paul Robeson he said was adequate as The Emperor Jones. Adequate. Nothing more.

Yet let us also admit, the choice itself serves to at least help make one think about these issues. So while objectionable to me, it might serve a useful purpose to another.

Finally, though, I'm going to be very critical about technique. Having been trained very thoroughly myself this is a matter that irritates me quite a lot. True, very many Americans tend to drop their last consonants, especially the plosives (t and d most of all) but actors should not. Period.

Likewise I saw in this production what seems nearly endemic in many Shakespeare productions when faced with long or simply heightened speech. Instead of talking, some of the actors when faced with these grabbed onto an emotion for dear life and then spewed out their lines. To be fair, I've seen that done by major movie stars in big budget productions. Didn't like it then, either. And when actors haven't had the good fortune to find coaches giving them that kind of technique, it is the director's responsibility to help them along. Given that I've seen two of these actors deliver good performances in other venues--one in verse--I place this responsibility on the director.

But let us not ignore the positive! For a brief few seconds in the first act, I did a mental take on the racial makeup of the family which makes up the Six. Yet after those few seconds it seemed perfectly ordinary. Too often non-traditional casting trips up in some way on self-consciousness. No so here! It worked very well. Likewise Carla Valentine gave a near-perfect performance in the small but very memorable role of Madame Pace. Of the Six the Little Boy (Norton Leufven) and Little Girl (Sara Vasquez) both carried off what they needed to very well indeed. Children can get bored easily. It takes some extraordinary focus for child actors that age to do well while on stage so long.

And make no mistake--I've seen theatrical productions where I squirmed in my seat, forcing myself to keep watching. Critical of this show I may be, but I cannot call it "bad." Indeed, despite the genuine problems throughout the cast conveyed the real power of Pirandello's most famous work. For that alone I'd recommend the show. Not without reservations, but I would recommend it.

Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm until October 27 at J.E.T. Studios 5126 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA 91601. You can make reservations here or by calling (323) 239-0485.

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