Hamlet. Cinderella. Jane Eyre. Mr. Micawber. When storytelling is at its finest, we say that the characters step off the stage into a reality of their own. Writers as modern as Woody Allen have taken that expression and extended it into a world of characters who can do just that, as in the movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo," in which a handsome film hero actually steps off the screen to romance an adoring fan.
It was Luigi Pirandello, however, who first and most completely articulated the inherent conflicts between art and reality in all their glorious and stimulating complexities. The Marquis Theatre production of "Six Characters in Search of an Author," now playing through March 6, provides a welcome opportunity to explore the Nobel prize-winning playwright's alternately funny, touching and most human manifestation of philosophical arguments that cut to the bone.
The brilliance of Pirandello's thought is enhanced by its contrast to the deceptively simple structure of the story. The play opens with a theater troupe rehearsing some obscure Pirandello play which they neither like nor understand, only to be interrupted by six arrivals who announce themselves as characters in search of an author.
Puzzled and annoyed, the troupe tells the "characters"--a husband, wife and four children from two different unions--to go away, but they refuse, insisting that they have been partly created by an author who discarded them and that they want the director and actors to finish their story, which, like Coleridge's ancient mariner, they feel compelled to tell over and over.
In the course of the drama (in which the characters, like different facets on a prism, argue among themselves about their versions of the story, even as they act out scenes of it for the troupe), Pirandello reveals the passion in the characters (the artistic concept) that is unmatched by the actors (the execution of the same).
Not only can't the actors capture even a fraction of the urgency with which the characters portrayed their story, the characters--with some justice--belittle the transient and fleeting reality of the actors whom, they argue, are no match for the pure and fixed intensity of their own lives as immortal art.
Under Minerva Marquis' careful direction, the play is substantially pruned down, but not to ill effect. While the cast is by and large green, the actors keep the show going, hitting their marks and getting the points across, though too rarely with sparkle; they lack the precision and skills that would take a high polish.
Still, often they seem to rise to the level of the material--particularly Helen Reed Lehman as the tormented mother and Quentin Michael Proulx as the withdrawn son. D. Joseph Dietz is solid if uninspired as the father while Monic Guevera, a second-grader at Rice Elementary in Chula Vista, is as touching as the frightened little girl as Daniel S. Polese is as the tormented boy. But it is in a category all her own that Patty Sipes burns, walking on a rope of fire as the passionate and scornful daughter.
The set, nicely designed by Ellery J. Brown, uses a series of slanted parallel wires like a force field to separate the characters' world of art from the actors' world of reality in the play within a play within a play. The costumes and the lights enhance the differences between the two worlds, casting most of the characters in stark black garments and dramatic pallor while the actors relax in jeans and warm lights.
There is a scene near the end in which the characters try to conjure up a missing member of their group by arranging a hat shop like that character used to run, in much the same spirit that people once appealed to the gods with the correct blend of ceremony and burnt offerings. That moment stands as a telling demonstration of how important the atmosphere is in conjuring up the magic of authentic theatrical visitations from the muse. It is an atmosphere that has been worked on with diligence by the Marquis--and, in this production, quite often to good effect.
Performances are at the Marquis Public Theatre, 3717 India St., at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 6.
SAN DIEGO--The problem with crackerjack, madcap comedies like "The Foreigner" is not that they're the candy lifesavers of the theater--delightfully sweet and hollow at the center. It is that inexperienced theater groups smell the jokes and think "crowd pleaser" without considering whether they can pull out the virtuoso performances necessary to make elaborate comedic dances shimmer.
The current United States International University production of "The Foreigner," playing at The Theatre in Old Town through Feb. 7, is a case in point. Larry Shue's story of a shy man with low self-esteem who pretends to be a non-English speaking foreigner so that the people in the inn he's visiting for a weekend won't speak to him, is three miles and a sharp right turn off the exit called Believable. What makes it tick, when it does, are real characters weaving in and out of the farcical tapestry of the inevitable misunderstandings and plot convolutions.
For those familiar with USIU shows, director Drew Tombrello has, for the most part, lined up the usual cast of suspects--Jamie Dawn Gangi, Louis Seitchik and Bob Mack. And while they are an appealing lot, their approach to comedy seems similar to the inn owner's approach to Charlie. When in doubt that their audience understands what they're saying, they speak louder and wave their arms around.
Thorsten E. Kieselbach, who also did nice work in USIU's recent "The Venetian Twins," again scores as Charlie's friend "Froggy" LeSueur who sets up his friend as a foreigner in the first place. But in the all-important part of Charlie, Howard Bickle provides an uneven performance. He is at his best when playing Charlie playing the foreigner--the wildly graceful gesticulations of his physical comedy then provide well deserved laughs in their own right. Like the rest of the cast though (with the exception of Kieselbach), he simply fails to be convincing in his role.
One just can't sense any history in these characterizations. The actors deliver the jokes as if they were comedians with a few too many exclamation points up their sleeves, instead of creating the people to whom the jokes are not jokes, but the story of their lives.
John Berger, who has done some fine designs for USIU, here depicts the inn as drab and unexciting, when it should look warm, cozy and lived in. As an added aggravation, the set, like last year's Gaslamp Quarter Theatre production--and unlike the off-Broadway production that Shue himself worked on-- misses the physical joke of the inn owner's spoon collection and fails to hang the bloody things on the wall.
Judy Ryerson's costumes are dull when they might be attractive, as when she dresses the former debutante, and fussy when they should be simple, as when she puts flashy emblems like GWE (Great White Empire) on a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
One thing the script does bear the troupe out on--it is funny enough so that from moment to comedic moment, it often works despite the production. But not for anyone who has seen it done well before.
Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday with Sunday matinees at 2 , through Feb. 7. At the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.