Strewn about a sparely furnished stage – a dozen wooden crates, painted white against the stage’s all-black background, three simple chairs, a bistro table, and a dimly lit streetlight – a troupe of insouciant actors sets about rehearsing a pair of one-act plays by Luigi Pirandello, first Chee-Chee and later The Man with the Flower in His Mouth. The actors grumble. “It’s bad enough doing one play by Pirandello! But two?” complains one, before they set about staging the first of the two, a broadly acted, vaudevillian farce. But, as the troupe – and the audience, too, ensconced in the intimate space of Theater 71 at Blessed Sacrament, in a church basement on Manhattan’s West Side – are about to find out, there’ll actually be not just two, but three works by the Italian playwright on stage.
As Chee-Chee, attired foppishly in a gold vest and green cravat, begins to unravel his comical con on his visitor, the unsuspecting Squatriglia (played, respectively, by Mickey Abbate and Giovanni Villari, complete with grimaces and wild gesticulation), they’re interrupted by a crescendo of eerie, discordant music – and presto! In what is by far the most striking moment of the evening’s entertainment, hidden doors at the rear of stage open wide to allow a phantasmagoric group characters to march slowly, slowly to center stage, to the utter astonishment of the onstage director (played by R. David Robinson) and his troupe. Silently, dressed in funereal black, ill-fitting costumes that evoke a Tim Burton-like fever dream, the six new otherworldly interlopers inform the director that they have a story to tell, and that they’ll be the subjects of his next work.
They are, of course, Six Characters in Search of an Author, principals in Pirandello’s best-known, full-length play. It’s all part of Raison D’Être: An Evening of Pirandello presented by Jennifer Jewell, an actress, director and producer, and directed by Patrick Mulryan, who adapted the play from somewhat stripped-down versions of the three Pirandello classics.
It’s a mash-up: the brilliant conceit of Raison D’Être is that six characters —who, in the original, interrupt a director, his actors and his stagehands rehearsing an unnamed work—in this case manage to intrude on two, otherwise unrelated works by Pirandello. Thus, Jewell and Mulryan weave an intricate tale that blurs the line between reality and illusion, between real life and stagecraft, leaving both the onstage actors and the audience to wonder: who exactly are the storytellers? Who, really, is the audience? What’s true, and what is fiction – or is it all true? Or all fiction? As the Director explains: he presents “truth, up to a certain point.”
Jennifer Jewell Brings a Rarely Produced Work to the USA
An early practitioner of what later came to be known as the Theatre of the Absurd (see: Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco), Pirandello isn’t often produced in the United States. In this adaptation– translated, in part, by Villari -- Jewell and Mulryan have created a ninety-minute performance that skillfully combines Pirandello’s off-kilter comedy with his puzzling irony and sudden bursts of affecting drama.
Particularly strong among the cast are Brian Linden (Father) and Lucie Allouche (Step-Daughter), as two of the Six Characters. Despite the implausibility of their uninvited intrusion onto the set, with great aplomb Linden, Allouche and the rest of their ill-starred family make it seem entirely reasonable that their misfit Characters belong exactly where they are.
Also excellent onstage is Jewell, who plays the title character in The Man with the Flower in His Mouth. In contrast to her scene partner, The Commuter (Robert Charles Russell), who is the very picture of middle class respectability and who stays seated throughout the scene, Jewell is made up in whiteface with bright red lips, reminiscent of the Joker, and she swirls and dances around The Commuter spinning out her mordant observations on life and death.
A special shout-out is owed to Maureen Freedman, the costume designer, and Marlin Steen, the makeup artist, whose creations go a long way toward evoking the uncertain, spooky and unsettling vibe that takes over Raison D’Être, and to choreographer Allison Plamondon, who deftly keeps the cast of fourteen in perpetual motion.
For more on this production read "Allison Plamondon Conversation-- RAISON D’ÊTRE: AN EVENING OF PIRANDELLO Preview"
Adapted from “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” “Chee Chee” and “The Man with a Flower in His Mouth” by Luigi Pirandello
Director: Patrick Mulryan
Choreographer: Allison Plamondon
Costume Designer: Maureen Freedman
Lighting Designer: Giovanni Villari
Music: The Sound Shelter - Brett Stewart and Chris Tench
Scenic and Props Designer: Emily Candelario
Stage Manager: Lindsey Michelle Gradwohl
Rachel Lauren James
Melissa Eddy Quilty
R David Robinson
Robert Charles Russell
Editor’s Note and Full Disclosure: Bob Dreyfuss has been friends with Allison Plamondon, the choreographer of this piece, since she appeared as Sarah Schorr in Trying by Joanna Glass, at Cape May Stage in 2015. Allison Plamondon is also a regular contributor of dance and theater reviews for Picture this Post. Click here to read more about her insights on choreography and performance.
Thru September 29
Nightly, except Monday 9/24, at 7:00 PM
Theatre 71 at Blessed Sacrament
52 West 71 Street
New York, NY
Bob Dreyfuss is an independent journalist based in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey, who has written extensively for Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. He has served as a member of the board of directors for Cape May Stage, an equity theatre in New Jersey, where he profiled dozen of actors for the company’s weekly newsletter. He currently serves on the board of The Upstart Creatures, a New York theatre company. Onstage, he has appeared as Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Delivery Man in Barefoot in the Park, and he is currently writing a full-length play about the late Senator John McCain. He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including the PBS Newshour, Fox News, Democracy Now!, and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and has traveled widely, including reporting from Iran, Vietnam, China, and Tanzania.