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‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ blurs line between art and life

| Monday, November 10, 2014

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In Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” the dramatist challenges our understanding of the differences between art and reality. This last weekend, in an adaption written and directed by Notre Dame graduate Patrick Vassel (2007), “Six Characters” came to Notre Dame to blur further the lines that separate the two.

In Pirandello’s original play, the six characters invade a play rehearsal for another one of Pirandello’s works. They take over rehearsal, demanding that their story be told, and just as the producer does in Vassal’s version, the director eventually acquiesces. As the actors attempt to recreate the story as it was told to them, the characters protest that the illusion being created is not accurate. And when rebuffed, they cry out that this illusion is their only reality.

The line between illusion and reality is further complicated by Vassal’s choice to move the setting of the play. This change pushes the already confused line between art and reality further — now the audience must balance between the story of the characters, the “reality” created by the actors on the “Irish Bachelor” and, of course, the real world referenced and assumed by the cast and crew of the “Irish Bachelor.” The entire play hinges on questioning what is real and what is art and how we differentiate between the two.

The question of artifice is present from the beginning, as the audience watches the cast prepare to rehearse the finale of the “Irish Bachelor.” They are asked to practice reacting appropriately when the signs along the edge of the stage are lit up, telling the audience when to laugh, “aw” and applaud. When the characters first invade the scene, the producer, played by Tyrel London, protests their requests to act their own story as they remember it.

“You want improv? Try Chicago. This is a reality show,” he tells them.

Not all of the play is entirely preconceived. After the show, I spoke with Mary Patano, who played Mary in the “Irish Bachelor.” She said that much of how the actors reacted to the invading characters was improv or at least were created as part of the rehearsal process. Each night, the show could be somewhat different — on opening night, the cast admonished an audience member for a phone going off. This layer of improv adds yet another dimension to the already-complicated soup of reality and art.

The action of the play is dominated by the role of the Father, played by FTT major Austin Swift. He acts as the spokesperson for the characters, contested by the Step-Daughter (played by Patricia Fernández de Castro-Sámano) and silently condemned by both the Mother (Kitty Baker) and the Son (Cameron Hart). Swift pulls off the role beautifully; he is cerebral, attempting to philosophize away his personal mistakes and reacting stoically the passionate outbreaks of his Step-Daughter.

Swift creates the reasonable, logical man the Father wishes to present to the Producer with a touch of the theatrical, serving to remind the audience that he is a character in a melodrama.

He is contrasted by Fernández de Castro-Sámono, whose passionate reactions to the Father’s long, reasoned speeches serve to question the storyline he spins. She sings, she screams, she laughs and she refuses to be hidden behind the man she says has wronged her.

Not to be forgotten are the other two adult characters, the Son and the Mother. They are pivotal but remain silent throughout most of the play. The Mother is distraught and the Son refuses to participate in the recreation of the family’s shame. Still, the actors Baker and Hart make their presences known on the stage. At any moment during some of the Father’s speeches, one imagines one or both of them might finally leap out at him in anger to silence him on these personal matters.

Perhaps one of the most effective parts of the play is how it uses the culture of Notre Dame to maintain its relevancy to the audience. The three Actors (Phil Mosey, Mary Patano and Lizzie Pagura) reference ND-SMC tensions, football and other aspects of ND culture in their reactions to the characters’ story. It was at these points that the audience reacted most audibly.

As the Producer, London acted as the bridge between the two worlds. His attempts to manage both sides of the action were believable, and his exasperation when his attempts failed was almost palpable.

The final scene of the play leaves many of the questions presented in the play unanswered. The play moves quickly and seems to speed up in the final moments. No longer do we have the long, extended explanations given for earlier scenes. The final deaths of the two children happen without reason or explanation — it is pure action. All we are given is the Father’s final statement: “Reality, sir, this is reality.” And no more.

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About Caelin Miltko

I am a senior English and Irish language major, with a minor in Journalism. I spent the last year abroad in Dublin, Ireland and am currently a Walsh RA living in Pangborn.

Contact Caelin