Friday, May 6, 2016

Six Characters in Search of an Author - Park Square Theater

It's a play I have always wanted to see. It's a landmark of modernist literature, but I knew I'd never read it. The new Wonderlust production updates the premise by incorporating elements of reality TV to the narrative. Though I haven't seen the original version, I can say that this one works. It's firing on all cylinders, and I suspect the lines of interaction pulling the two dramas together heighten many of Pirandello's original effects.

Premise? Effects? The central conceit of the original play involves a theatrical rehearsal that's disrupted by the arrival of six characters who are not in the production. They announce that they're from a different play that's never been completed. They're searching for an author to bring their stories to completion.

In the current adaptation, a director is preparing for the final episode of a Reality TV show called "The Maze," which is to be filmed live in a few hours. The three remaining contestants, having avoided elimination in previous episodes, are characterized by their colleagues as the Dude, the Jerk, and the Flirt. They've gotten on one another's nerves in the course of their many weeks spent inside the Maze, and their repartee tends to be shallow and cutting, but they're all determined to bear one another's company long enough to win the million dollar prize money.

When these strangers from a distant era unexpectedly arrive, things begin to get interesting. Is this just another test to winnow out the remaining contestants? The director claims not. The stories this family of misfits tell about one another, and their bizarre need to reconnect with an author—any author—is one curve ball too many.

The director of "The Maze" insists he can't help them. He's not a writer. His show doesn't have a script. That's the whole point. It's "real." But the intruders show no signs of leaving the set, and as they argue with one another about who did what to whom, and when, he decides there might be some material there he can use.

The intruders are relieved to find someone finally taking an interest in their plight, but they're dismayed when they discover that although the director plans to use their stories, they won't be acting the parts themselves. At this point the challenge of reconciling divergent points of view and separating "reality" from commercialized cant grows greater still.

Considered on their own terms, the fragmentary details we learn about the family drama are melodramatic, while the characters holding "The Maze" together are basically clueless, but these two very imperfect worlds inexplicably seem to illuminate one another, and the addition of multiple TV screens and twitter feeds on the set further heighten the razzmatazz. 

The actors are uniformly competent. There are sometimes eight or ten people on stage at the same time, engaged in several conversations simultaneously, and it's clear that a good deal of effort was spent on perfecting the play's timing.

I left the theater pondering the issues Pirandello had in mind when he wrote it: What makes a character "real"? Is a life ultimately defined by its best or its worst moment? Are the impressions we form of others a part of their character, or of ours?

But for the most part, I was simply amused by the non-stop flood of ironies, intricacies, jokes and jibes, encased within a challenging but eventually coherent plot. In short, a modern classic, successfully post-modernized. 

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We were invited to a pre-performance meet-and-greet sponsored by Rain Taxi Magazine, and we enjoyed chatting with Eric Lorberer, who introduced us to one of the play's managers. We also chatted with Paul Von Drasek, a retired sales rep from Penguin Books who shared some tales about the security issues the publisher faced during the Salman Rushdie era. An old friend from the Writers' Union, Alicia Conroy, was also in the crowd. She's teaching the play in her literature class at Normandale Community College, and she filled us in on how the new production compares with the original.

I think that may have helped.

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