Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota has theater in his blood and it shows in his Six Characters in Search of an Author that visited BAM this week. Under the direction of this son of French theater artists, who heads up two major cultural institutions in Paris – the Théâtre de la Ville, which brings this production, and the autumn performance series, the Festival d’Automne – Demarcy-Mota artfully magnifies Luigi Pirandello’s meta-theatrical musings into a brooding reflection on illusion and reality.
Pirandello’s absurdist premise (a family of characters in an unwritten tragedy interrupt rehearsals of Pirandello’s The Rules of the Game to demand the actors play their story) is a pretext for examining not only theater’s basic tension between artifice and actuality but also for questioning the nature of existence itself. As the Father of the author-less family insists to the disbelieving director, “If we characters have no other reality beyond the illusion, you too must not count overmuch on your reality, since it may prove an illusion for you tomorrow.” Later, the director will interrupt a scene where the family’s four-year old daughter drowns in a fountain, by jubilating at the moment’s realism and consequent emotional punch, crowing, “Great! Fantastic!”
This American premiere of a well-toured production that had its first run in 2001 offers a second look at Demarcy-Mota’s work, previously glimpsed in the Théâtre de la Ville’s production of Rhinoceros that also ran in BAM’s Next Wave program, in 2012. Both shows feature actor Hugues Quester as a grandly gesturing bombast (in the role of the Father, here), as well as Yves Collet’s set design, which again favors a savant play of light and shadow (faithful in this way to Pirandello’s stage directions) to heighten these works’ patent absurdity.
Indeed, there is a feeling of déjà vu in this succession of productions, from the absurdist genre and historical period of both plays to the scenography and casting of the productions, although both revivals have gone through some revamping since their now distant premieres. But notwithstanding Collet’s sometimes marvellous design choices (Rhinocéros’s suspended bridges or a magical fountain scene for Pirandello’s last act), and a vivid, contemporary sensibility for this almost 100 year old text (where the pivotal sex scene is not pussy-footed around), one longs to see in New York some of Demarcy-Mota’s more daring projects, such as the critically acclaimed Le Diable en partage, by the contemporary French playwright, Fabrice Melquiot.
For this Six Characters, however, Demarcy-Mota and the Théâtre de la Ville’s ensemble turn in a probing, beguiling reflection on Pirandello’s philosophical concerns. Quester and his counterpart, Valérie Dashwood, as the outraged Step-Daughter who has been paid to have sexual relations with her mother’s first husband (the offense of which fuels the six characters’ grievances), channel the absurdist urgency of the family’s quest with a palpable desperation, delivering their lines straight to the seats at the Harvey rather than to their fictional audience of actors. Collet has the director’s table just before the first row of seats, into which the action momentarily moves, so that the direction and the set leave wide open the proverbial fourth wall to Pirandello’s meta-theatrical labyrinth.
Sarah Karbasnikoff embodies Pirandello’s immutably grieving mother with similar fidelity, perfect in the “wax-like” face the playwright imagined for her. The rest of the family seems less favorably stuck in a moment, with costuming and facial expressions that strand them at a crossroads between The Addams Family and The Godfather. Their quasi-lifelessness in their tragic roles is nicely offset by Alain Libolt’s consummately professional director, always with a hand on the fine points of the “play,” and the actors who enact the family’s scenes, sometimes with welcome comic flourishes. As “real” as Pirandello’s reputedly difficult text can get, this Six Characters gives life and meaning to a foundational theater work.