A `Six Characters' as relevant as TV's latest docudrama

Pirandello would have been sympathetic to moviegoers who were dismayed by films like ``The Patty Hearst Story'' and ``Mommie Dearest,'' the Joan Crawford bio. Though made long after his time, they are vivid examples of a central theme in his 1921 play ``Six Characters in Search of An Author.'' As the play's stepdaughter character protests to the actress who is cast to play her, ``But ... you ... aren't the least like me.'' For Pirandello asks, in the recent production here at Washington's Arena Stage: What is the reality of any individual? Patricia Hearst sees a reality different from her own while watching English actress Natasha Richardson play her on film as Patty/Tanya, kidnapped publishing heiress-turned-violent revolutionary. Friends and fans of star Joan Crawford see a different reality from the one they knew while watching Faye Dunaway in ``Mommie Dearest.'' Today's TV and film docudramas, which mingle fact with fiction, are symptomatic of the concerns of Pirandello, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1934.

``What's the sense of putting on this play now?'' one ing'enue in the audience asked another at opening-night intermission. But Pirandello's obsession with reality vs. unreality couldn't be more timely, as director Liviu Ciulei's brilliant and provocative production of ``Six Characters'' proved before its Sunday closing.

The six characters of the title are a family: a father, mother, and son, and the mother's three children by a later liaison with another man. These six characters appeared, as a huge door opened at the back of the stage, revealing them in an eerie blue-white light.

On stage already before the six characters' appearance were the actors, crew, and director about to rehearse a Pirandello play, ``Mixing It Up.'' The characters are in search of an author because the playwright, after creating them, decided not to give them life in a play. ``We bring you a drama, sir,'' says the father to the director.

The characters want to live, to show their lives, but are told by the manager to stand aside so that the actors may rehearse to give the illusion of being the characters. When the father protests, the manager tells him, ``But here, my dear sir, the characters don't act. Here the actors do the acting,'' cheerfully reassuring them that the actors can do a much better job of the characters' lives than the characters can do.

Mr. Ciulei, the Romanian-born director, brought ``Six Characters'' vividly to life with a supple cast that shifted superbly from the comedy of the opening scenes to the tragic final scenes of the children's deaths. The family was relentless in its will to tell its story. And it is a fascinating tale, led by Stanley Anderson, who eased gradually into the character of the father like a man putting on a pair of new shoes. By the end of the play he had become a father of ferocious strength. His chief foil is the stepdaughter (Roxann Biggs) who hurls at him like a series of knives the degrading moments in their relationship.

Miss Biggs, as the stepdaughter, was electrically charged, sparking emotions from the characters around her with her wild sense of injustice and grief. But she was sometimes a bit shrill.

John Leonard was cold as ice as the detached son who says, ``I never make scenes. I don't want a scene.'' Bette Henritz played the stolid mother. Danielle Koch and Amanda Waters alternated in playing the little girl, George Alexander and Joshua Shirlen the boy. Fiddle Viracola played the infamous Madame Pace, who sells hats and sexual liaisons with her salesgirls.

Richard Bauer gave a powerful performance as the elegant, witty, and brittle director auditioning the lives of the characters. The rest of an almost uniformly excellent cast included Halo Wines as the silkily scathing leading lady, Henry Strozier as the leading man so dapper he was almost waxed, Bob Kirsh as the juvenile, and Marissa Copeland as the ing'enue. Special laurels went to Abraham Dobkin as the cantankerous prompter who steps on everyone's lines.

Ciulei also created sets in sync with the play: the primary one, an authentic but dreary-looking stage in rehearsal, with a red chair the only bright spot. Smaranda Branescu's costumes were pungently in character.

At the end, we are left to consider the Father's words on behalf of the six characters: ``We as we are have no other reality outside of this illusion. ... That which is a game of art for you is our sole reality.'' But for the length of the play, Ciulei's vivid illusion was our reality.

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