Most theatrical productions that work well are not trying to reinvent the wheel. As long as the writing is solid, a play will generally be successful if it just sticks to the script with few extra flourishes. This isn’t really an option with Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Derided as absurdist and nonsensical when it premiered in Italy in 1921, the play requires the vision of a director and crew who are willing to take risks in order to make it a vibrant piece of theatre, rather than a dry exercise in recursion. Though this production is certainly propelled by bold choices, it often falls victim to ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out, and is brought down by flaws in the play itself that can’t be avoided.
Six Characters takes place on a stage where a group of actors are rehearsing a play. We see petty dramas and rivalries unfold between the actors as the Director (Malachy Cleary) and crew get ready to rehearse—and then the impossible happens. Six fictional characters materialize out of nowhere, interrupt the proceedings, and insist that their story be told. At first the Director waves it off as nonsense, but then decides to indulge them. Idea becomes character and character becomes audience as they begin to mount a new play. What follows is a series of conversations and monologues about agency, reality, and the nature of illusion.
All of that could come off as a dry exercise in meta-theatre—it’s a testament to the playwright that it never devolves into a completely academic exercise. The characters, while not “real,” have very believable and tragic pasts to explore, and these events culminate in a very satisfying conclusion. However, the pacing can drag, with the play often becoming a series of long-winded monologues that repeat previous plot points and ideas ad nauseum, deflating the dramatic tension. There are also a few bizarre additions to the text in the form of interjections from the supporting cast, but unfortunately, these attempts at humour fall completely flat.
Beyond the titular Six Characters and the Director, none of the actors get much of a chance to distinguish themselves, though they all excel with the material given to them. The more prominent characters are given much more to work with, and therefore have more chances to come up short. Mostly, these performances are good, with the actors attempting and mostly succeeding at breathing life into the text. Too often, though, performances devolve into characters yelling at each other instead of simply acting. The two leads, Father (Nicholas Lepage) and Director, are especially guilty of this—though Father brings a manic physicality to the role that makes these flaws much more forgivable. The clear standout of the cast is Oskar Flemer as the Son, who almost completely avoids the rampant escalation of the rest of the cast, bringing a nuanced anger to the role, characterized by a quietness that is much more frightening than screaming.
The production itself is uneven, equal parts inspired and misguided. The costuming and set design were quite strong for a McGill production—the Six Characters are elevated to an almost otherworldly eeriness through their pristine formalwear contrasted against the ornate masks and blue lipstick that they wear at all times. It’s a decision that could come off as monumentally silly, but it works. The sets are simple—just a door, a desk, and four giant canvas panels (used brilliantly to create shadows of the characters)—yet manage to eke out a deeper level of meaning from the text. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is completely overwrought and poorly coordinated—none of the songs sound cohesive with each other, nor with the play itself. One particularly tone-deaf moment involves playing the intro to Pink Floyd’s “Money” when a character mentions the fact that they received money for something.
Though the play is admirable for its ambition, and contains many elements worth the price of admission, it never reaches the level of quality that it needs to make it a consistently engrossing production.
Six Characters in Search of an Author runs from Wednesday, Nov. 19 to Saturday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. at Players’ Theatre (3480 McTavish). Student tickets are $6.