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Thursday, April 19, 2018 12:09 am

Theatrical exorcism

UIS Theatre takes on Pirandello’s haunting humorous Six Characters

Playwright Luigi Pirandello
Nearly a century ago, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello prefigured postmodernism with his then-controversial 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which continues its two-week run at the UIS Theatre this weekend.

As the title suggests, the play’s content is self-referential, concerning itself as much with philosophical notions about literary creation and performance as with conventional elements of plot and presentation. Thankfully, this is no long-winded conceptual wallow of a production – instead, as adapted from the original Italian by Robert Brustein and directed by UIS theatre department professor Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, it is as funny and fast-moving as it is profound and occasionally disturbing.

The action begins, slyly, with the house lights still up and audience members only gradually becoming aware that the play has started. The primary story line has a slice-of-life feel, featuring a small, comically bickering theatrical troupe preparing to rehearse. Headed by would-be martinet director Jeremy (portrayed with strutting but ultimately impotent bravado by Christopher Marbaniang), the ragtag group can’t or won’t get started working on the hackneyed play they are meant to be preparing, preferring to level a series of jibes at each other, many amusingly personalized to the specific setting of UIS and the theatre program, including cracks about department professor Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson and the presumed superiority of Illinois State University’s theater tech.

This gang is soon interrupted by the appearance onstage of the titular characters, a spooky sextet who seem to wander in from nowhere. Led by Tom Hutchison as “Father,” the six mysterious strangers soon reveal themselves to be embodiments of characters from an abandoned melodrama, wandering in a sort of literary limbo. They attempt to persuade the bored and rambunctious troupe to take on their story and bring it to life. This process, along with its existential and creative implications, becomes the main thrust of the play.

The UIS production manages a delicate balancing act between the easygoing comic tone of the theater troupe, the angst-filled familial trauma of the lost characters and the resulting soul-searching and reality-blurring caused by Pirandello’s audacious conceit of having these two “realities” meet on the stage. Sparing use of stage effects periodically transforms the minimal setting to a site of a virtual literary exorcism, which is at times surreal and even briefly frightening. As Father, Hutchison has a particularly uncanny presence, with a seemingly stilted falsity to his early line deliveries eventually giving life to a character that is purposely one-dimensional but also anguished, not only by its fictional predicament, but also by an inability to fully realize it. Katie Simpson also makes an impression as the fiery Stepdaughter, whose built-in thirst for vengeance can never be sated. The cast portraying the troupe gives the effortless impression of a group of colleagues suddenly and inexplicably thrust out of its depth.

In the preface to a 1925 publication of the script, Pirandello described Six Characters in Search of an Author as “a mixture of tragic and comic, fantastic and realistic.” The UIS production embodies all of these qualities for an evening at the theater that is both enjoyable and challenging.

Remaining performances of Six Characters in Search of an Author are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 19, 20 and 21 at the UIS Studio Theatre in the Public Affairs Center, level one, on the UIS campus. Tickets are available at uis.edu/theatre/tickets, by calling the UIS Theatre Box Office at 206-7529 or in the UIS Visual and Performing Arts building, room VPA 127.  

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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