Saturday, April 14, 2012

AUM: "Six Characters in Search of an Author"

Once again, Theatre AUM is taking a brave step in producing a rarely performed pre-absurdist play, this time by Italian innovator Luigi Pirandello -- Six Characters in Search of an Author written in 1921, and updated in this version to allow both contemporary and Montgomery area references to help involve audiences in its challenging ideas.

Though this kind of theatre may not appeal to everyone, AUM is consistent in its educational theatre purpose. Universities must provide their students and audiences exposure to various theatrical forms & processes, and while Pirandello may not have as great an impact as other world playwrights, it is essential that a comprehensive curriculum engages with his ideas not only on the page in classrooms but in performance on the stage as well, to bring life to the heady philosophical material of Pirandello's text, especially as it attends to the nature of theatre itself.

The play "begins" as the audience arrives: stagehands are building a set on-stage while other company members gather. They are getting ready to rehearse a play by Pirandello [NOT Six Characters], and when it is time to start their rehearsal, we are already involved. While their theatre jobs are often designated [director, leading lady, stage manager, et al.] they are referred to by their actual names, lending a kind of authenticity to them.

But then, a set of mysterious "characters" arrive unannounced, requesting and then demanding that the acting company present their story, one which their author had left unfinished. Theirs is an unsympathetic family melodrama replete with infidelity, prostitution, possible incest, envy, mistrust, and death: irresistable fodder for the struggling theatre company to take on.

What follows are several arguments on the nature of theatre & illusion. Which is more real -- characters in plays whose lives never change, or actors whose job is to give the illusion of truthful portrayals of written characters, or any ordinary person whose life continually changes and who takes on numerous roles with each new circumstance?

And how do we respond to the stage action of Six Characters... when we are frequently addressed by actors from the stage and expected to react or at least consider/reflect on their conditions?

AUM director Mike Winkelman's ensemble of some 23 actors display the contrasting realities with conviction. While the behaviors of the theatre company in the play are easily identifiable and sometimes stereotypical [the smugness of leading actors, the ineptitude of a neophyte props man, the aloofness & condescension of the director], the play's six characters, only identified by their relationships to one another [father, mother, stepdaughter, et al.] become far more interesting & engaging, and yes, more real...and when they see themselves imitated by the professional actors, it is to them and to us both incongruously laughable and downright insulting, partly because the actors get it wrong, and partly because each character's version of the events is distinctly different from the others' -- just as in real life, one's sense of the truth is limited by the individual experience.

The AUM company is to be applauded for tackling this Pirandello play. The conviction the ensemble brings to their roles and to the subject matter is presented in a naturalistic mode whose clarity is only occasionally muddled by inarticulate speech or by the din of overlapping dialogue.

If audiences leave the theatre discussing the nature of truth & illusion, reality & appearance, then Six Characters in Search of an Author has accomplished a significant goal.