Note on content: contains discussion of pieces of art that deal with sexual violence

Théâtre de la Ville performs Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello

October 24 and 25
Power Center
$26-48 ($13-24 with student discount)

As a form of art that relies on the interplay between acting and stage design, the manipulation of belief and disbelief, theater lends itself uniquely to the interrogating the problems of meaning-making and selfhood. The twentieth century saw revolution after revolution in the dramatic arts, each redefining what it meant to perform, to write and to produce.

Next weekend, the Théâtre de la Ville (City Theater) of Paris will be presenting its interpretation of Italian writer Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, a work that was — and remains — groundbreaking in the way that it frustrates the straightforward character of theatrical production by foregrounding distance and conflict. Pirandello, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934 and a writer of not only theater but also poetry and fiction, was centrally concerned with how theater can serve as the venue for questions of identity, genre and writing in general, rather than giving audiences bland, naturalistic morality plays as was the dominant practice at the time (and the belief for many today as well in the United States).

Théâtre de la Ville, which has gone by a number of names since its establishment in 1862, was built as one of the modernizing projects of pioneering architect Baron Haussmann and stands as one of the premiere dramatic institutions of the Francophone world. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the company’s director, discussed the intellectual and aesthetic labor that has gone into Théâtre de la Ville’s production of this play. Michael Chase, one of the company’s administrators, translated the interview between English and French.

“It is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth (century), a play that brought a breach in European dramaturgy. And what I’m interested in today, as I’ve been in love with the art of theater since childhood, is how the play is an homage to theater, the strength of imagination and the cruelty of life,” Demarcy-Mota said.

Pirandello’s play is a metatheatrical exploration of the possibilities and impossibilities of theatrical production, focusing on the six characters’ confrontation with their distance from their roles as actors when they break into a rehearsal of another play of Pirandello’s.

“I first produced the play in 2001 with the same actors, and we’ve worked a lot on the depth of the play – tragic character, anguish, anxiety and at the same time the comical – to try to make the spectator understand and show the audience how Pirandello goes very deep into the human soul,” Demarcy-Mota said. “The most difficult part for the actors was to accept all the conflicts that are in the play.”

These conflicts concern the relationship between director and character, character and character and actor and character. In this way, Pirandello provides the framework for the characters to work through their conflicts in the simultaneously empowering and anxiety-inducing borderlands between character and character or character and actor. Such a skeletal account can do no justice to Pirandello’s gymnastic navigation and manipulation of the roles of director, actor and character that so many have been content to see as stable or self-evident.

“The theme of theater within theater allows us to deal with the comedic aspects because it creates distance, which allows us to see actors who are attempting to play a character and their failure, which is terrible but funny at same time. The comedy comes from the tragedy; it is not separate from the tragedy,” Demarcy-Mota said.

Pirandello was a playwright who reveled in making these kinds of contradictions come alive on the stage. And while the play interests itself in understanding the sorts of abstract categories of self, tragedy, comedy, character and performance, it is equally interested in working through trauma and violence, some of the very emotional matter of everyday life. The play concerns itself in particular with an instance of sexual violence between the Father and the Stepdaughter.

“He (Pirandello) poses the question of truth and reality as a theoretician creating fiction. Finally, like Brecht, he writes fiction but is posing questions about the theater. ‘What is a character,’ ‘what is a drama,’ ‘what is a tragedy’ – within these questions, he will build work in which the greatest fantasies, the greatest anxieties, the misunderstandings between the people and the dimensions of the impossibility of living together will appear,” Demarcy-Mota said.

For all of our community’s theater-goers, enthusiasts of twentieth century literature and anyone who wants to learn more about theater, Théâtre de la Ville’s performance of one of Pirandello’s theatrical masterworks will not disappoint in its prompting of questions that strike to the very heart of understanding oneself as a self that lives among others.

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