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James J. Cox, Jessica Barrett Denison, Melissa Virgo, Thomas Velasquez and Benjamin Cramer in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Archway Studio Theatre. (Photo by Elias McCabe.)
James J. Cox, Jessica Barrett Denison, Melissa Virgo, Thomas Velasquez and Benjamin Cramer in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Archway Studio Theatre. (Photo by Elias McCabe.)

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Archway Studio Theatre
Through July 22

In this 1921 play, the Sicilian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Luigi Pirandello employed meta-theatrics to examine his favorite themes: the differences between perceptions and reality.

In a theatre where a rehearsal is taking place, six mysterious strangers appear. They explain that they are characters created for a play that the author never got round to writing. They are trapped in an eternal present unless they can persuade the theatre director to stage their drama, which is a tale of infidelity, guilt, betrayal, near incest, murder and suicide.

Director Steven Sabel has chosen to emphasize the comedy in a work often played as tragedy, and puts increased emphasis on the vanity and egotism of the actors rather than the tragic lives of the six characters they are chosen to play. The attempts at comedy are generally successful, but sometimes at the expense of the grimmer tale of the characters. Sabel has also freely adapted the piece, updating it and adding topical and local references. (The actors are said to be graduates of USC.) But he has been faithful enough to include most of the original text, despite its repetitions.   

The six characters include the guilt-ridden Father, who serves as spokesman for the group, played credibly and with fidelity by James J. Fox, though one could wish for a bit more force from him. Melissa Virgo plays the grief-ravaged Mother, whom the Father drove into the arms of a lover. Jessica Barrett Denison lends a touch of manic vengefulness to the Stepdaughter, who is almost seduced by the Father when he encounters her in a brothel. Benjamin Cramer brings intensity to the role of the Son, who is mortified by the airing of the family’s shame and disgrace. And Thomas Velasquez is the silent and brooding younger son, portrayed here as an adolescent rather than as a child. (The sixth character is played as a silent babe-in-arms.)

The actors in the theatre company (Bill Bingham, Angela Dobson Robbins, Bree Wernicke, and Masi Hasher) are interpreted broadly (and predictably) as egocentric poseurs and hams. And they are a clamorous presence onstage. The arrogant and bossy director (Carol Vandegrift) strives to make the messy story of the characters’ lives conform to the orderly stereotypes and traditions of the theatre.

Sabel’s production seems a bit perverse and harum-scarum, but it does unleash some of the emotional potential of the material, which has not been apparent in other more finished recent productions.

 

Archway Studio Theatre, 10509 Burbank Blvd., Los Angeles.  Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; (818) 980-7529. Running time: two hours and 5 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Note: Many of the actors alternate in their roles, so the casting varies from night to night.

 

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