Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author is not necessarily a play for the conventional theatre-goer. (I might also add that it is a hugely daunting feat for the novice reviewer, but here goes….) The plot structure is odd, the story multi-faceted and slightly unnerving, and traditional "rules" of the theatre are occasionally ignored. It is easy to imagine how the original Roman audiences of 1921 became incensed over Pirandello's bizarre spectacle. However, Aquila Theatre Company's production at Diana Wortham Theatre was so hauntingly entrancing that it was difficult not to become wholly entangled in the lives of Pirandello's unfinished characters.
The play begins with a rehearsal for a Pirandello play. The director (Howard Crossley) and actors are joined by a host of characters who explain that they need the director to finish their story. The Father (Owen Young), the leader of the Characters, begins to unravel their harrowing tale, each character adding or arguing their piece. The narrative itself provides a compelling story of longing, loss, and unfortunate circumstance, but its retelling during rehearsal allows for vibrant and often very humorous discussion of the nature of theatre and even life itself. The characters have a refined sense of theatricality that juxtaposed beautifully against the more natural style of the "actors" and director. For instance, the Mother's (Sarah Amankwah) first entrance to the stage cultivated an immediate visceral reaction as she slowly and painfully staggered onstage veiled in black, as if in a dream sequence, clinging to the veiled faces of her two deceased children.
The production was hugely enhanced by the company's choice to place the Characters in masks. Not only does it pay homage to Pirandello's Italian roots in commedia del'arte, but it also highlighted the limited dimensionality of the Characters. The masks allowed solely the expression of their bodies and the shadows of the stage lights to play upon them. Though at first I wondered if they would be a hindrance to the performers and their ability to connect with the audience, the Characters were so fully committed to their individual motivations that you couldn't help but feel strongly for each and every one of them.
Aquila Theatre Company, established in London in 1991, is the professional Company-in-Residence at the Center for Ancient Studies at NYU. They are devoted to the idea that a play can be only be classified as "classical" when it "retains the power to provoke the central question of what it means to be human." Their mission is to rework these classics and make them relatable for contemporary audiences. With that in mind, Six Characters in Search of an Author seems like a play crafted particularly for them. Undoubtedly the best known and most renowned of Pirandello's works, Six Characters' themes of reality versus illusion speak as much to our world of internet and "reality" television as I'm sure it ever did to its contemporary setting. For instance, when the subject of reality is called into question, the Father character dispenses his firm belief that because he is a character who exists only in a play, his sense of reality is much more real. His life is forever constant, where as the reality that belongs to a human being is only real at the exact moment that it is conceived, and then it becomes the illusion of memory. It's a quandary that has and always will present itself to those of us unfortunate enough to be cast in flesh rather than ink.
Six Characters in Search of an Author brings up questions that are as compelling as they are headache-inducing: Is my reality your reality? What makes today less of an illusion than yesterday or tomorrow? Whose is the most accurate truth? It is a surreal examination of the human condition, and was that delightful concoction of critical thought and raw emotion that I love extracting from a night at the theatre.