by JK Clarke
If you want a surreal, confusing theatrical journey, then usually anything by Luigi Pirandello ((1867-1936) should satisfy your needs. Pirandello’s work is often thought of as a forerunner to the Theater of the Absurd, a form which, among other things called attention to the inherent meaningless of human existence (not unlike or entirely separate from existentialism). Pirandello is probably best known his 1921 farce, Six Characters in Search of An Author, which exploded traditional form and featured an early meta-analysis of play writing. In it, a theater company in rehearsal is interrupted by six people who need their “story” finished by the director. It’s all very confusing, heady stuff, to be sure. But, now multi-media artist and theater director Theodora Skipitares has taken it even further, with the Pirandello-influenced Six Characters (A Family Album) (now through April 16 at La Mama), which takes the original even further off on a twisted, trippy visit into the land of confusion.
Saying Six Characters is loosely based on Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author is sort of like saying your dreams are stories loosely based on your life: sure they are, but . . . not really. The first part of the production begins (we find out later) in an ante-chamber to the main theater. A (very realistic looking) puppet of the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead rolls out onto the stage on a motorized scooter (aka a “Jazzy”—what’s the deal with marionette/puppet shows and Jazzys? This is the third time I’ve encountered them!) and begins lecturing on family and human relationships. A voice over discusses Geppetto, then a lit sphere with the face of Luigi Pirandello projected on it then begins to talk about authors and their relationships to their characters. Shortly thereafter, three different giant Pinnochios (Pinnochii?) emerge, one after another, from backstage. They are different ages, sizes and are dressed somewhat differently, and their interactions with Gepetto are meta, abstract and analytical. Whew.
Okay, so you get the idea. The play is then moved to another room, a more traditional theater with seats on risers, etc. And though the overlap with the original Pirandello play becomes more apparent here, it’s safe to say most heads in the audience are spinning by this point.
Margaret Mead (astride her Jazzy) introduces us to the next family in search of direction: The Loud Family, who are considered part of one of the very first experiments (in 1971) in Reality TV. Mead discusses the novelty of how in An American Family—the documentary that told the Loud Family story following hundreds of hours of day-to-day filming—“none of the Louds knew what direction their lives would take.” In this sense, Skipitares seems to be pointing out, these early iterations of reality TV didn’t differ a whole lot from the purposes of the Theater of the Absurd. Next is a family in a news story who are taken seriously ill by contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Life and art are becoming interchangeable with these sad stories visited on “regular” people.
Six Characters’ narratives, as surreal as they are on paper, are played out with even more puppet figures, the most mind-altering and creative being faces projected onto floating, glowing orbs, often in abstract shapes. Skipitares’ puppetry, Jane Catherine Shaw’s technical design, Tim Schellenbaum’s haunting, disembodied sound work and scenic design by Taylor Clayton-Brooks, Maiko Kikuchi and Britt Moseley, all make for a mystery tour of haunting proportions. It’s a mesmerizing, often confusing look at characters and their interactions within and without their intended worlds that may not be for everyone, but is certainly compelling for those who like their theater to provide a means to escape traditional narrative and form.
Six Characters (A Family Album). Through April 16 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th Street, 2nd floor; between Second Avenue and the Bowery). www.lamama.org
Photos by Theo Cote