Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Six Characters in Search of an Author
Wonderlust Productions
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Charm and Harvey


Paul LaNave and Adam Whisner
Photo by Aaron Fenster
Six Characters in Search of an Author is one of those titles that anyone with a serious interest in theater knows, but far fewer have ever seen. I admit to being among those who knew Luigi Pirandello's play by reputation but never sat through a staging of it. I am indebted to Wonderlust Productions for the opportunity to correct that lapse in my theatergoing career. Wonderlust has mounted Alan Berks' (who also directs the show) clever and wholly successful update of Six Characters on Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage.

The original play premiered in Rome in 1921 at the vanguard of Theater of the Absurd. As it begins, a play in rehearsal is interrupted by the entrance of six strangers, bathed in ghostly light, who claim to be characters whose author has abandoned them unfinished. They are seeking an author to make them complete. The Director is impressed by their story and decides to stage that, rather than the play he had been rehearsing. The characters and actors are at odds over who should play the parts—actors, who are mere pretenders, or the characters themselves. The debate over which is the more real—characters who, once created, are unchanging and therefore represent fixed truth, or actors who, being mortal, change from day to day, even moment to moment—forms the crux of the play.

Alan Berks had the fantastic idea that the six characters interrupt not a scripted play, but the final episode of a reality TV show called "The Maze," being filmed before a live audience (which, we, the actual audience, provide). All the clich├ęs of the reality show genre are present, including a hyped up emcee, melodramatic music during transitions, hidden cameras capturing the players unawares, and contestants who span a range of types. To wit, the three final contestants: Michael, the token black person (with frequent reference by the emcee to his harsh ghetto childhood and absent father, neither of which is true); Sam, the slovenly, politically incorrect jerk; and Rachel, who fancies herself "the girl next door, but with an air of mystery", but who everyone else labels "the flirt."

As in the original play, the six characters constitute a family: The Mother, The Father, The Son, the Daughter, The Boy and The Girl. In Berks' version, the young boy and girl are represented on stage by life-size stark white puppets, though we see live children on video of them in the house (actually a stage set) shared by "The Maze" contestants. Their story, both in Pirandello's original and Berks' adaption, is a maudlin affair. After having one child (The Son) together, The Father has sent The Mother away, into the arms of her lover with whom she has three more children—The Daughter, The Boy and The Girl. There is hostility, sexual intrigue, grief, blame, self-recrimination, and death aplenty to go around. But there is not an ending.

The heaviness of The Characters' tale is leavened by wit inserted in the arguments between the Characters and the actors, and given further buoyancy by Berks' satiric jabs at reality television. The existential question as to which group—characters or actors—are more truly "real" is given the added dimension by virtue of the reality TV players not being actual actors, yet in fact, having been selected to play a certain role on "The Maze"—that role being, themselves. It all gets very meta at times, and the volleys of philosophical statements can be hard to keep up with. Nonetheless, the point of the arguments is made fully evident, and the whole affair is directed by Berks in a manner that takes itself seriously enough to raise fascinating questions, but with a broad enough wink of the eye to be wonderful fun throughout.

The cast is marvelous. The four actors portraying the Characters are frozen in their unchanging states of torment. Kiara Jackson projects dangerous sexuality as The Daughter, Gabriel Murphy exudes unflinching bitterness as The Son, Sandra Struthers is eternally grieving as The Mother, and Adam Whisner is a rationalizing monster as The Father. Of the three finalists, Michael T. Brown is delightfully droll as Michael (the token black), Sam Landman makes Sam (the Jerk) a self-satisfied lout, and Rachel Finch displays insights beneath Rachel's flirty, flighty exterior.

Joe Wiener as emcee of "The Maze" is vacuously jolly, until everything he is prepared for goes out the window. Paul LaNave as the Director of "The Maze" channels the manipulative force to get "reality TV" contestants to act according to his plans, turning real people into characters for a national audience. He becomes implosive at the possibilities raised by the new set of characters, balancing on the brink of being undone by the ecstasy of creativity, the terror of losing control, or both.

Set design, costumes, lighting, sound, and video design all work wonders to make a seamless transition from the portions of "The Maze" seen on several TV monitors, and what we see enacted on stage. The continuous live TV feed show on the monitors allowed us to switch our focus from the broad sweep on stage to the intimacy of a camera close-up. Kudos to the entire creative team.

This is a terrific work of theater, both thought provoking and greatly entertaining. Berks treats Pirandello's original work with utmost respect. This is not a parody of Six Characters in Search of an Author, but a sincerely wrought renovation that recasts Pirandello's absurdist views and challenging ideas in a context that mirrors life in 2016. In doing so, the absurdism and provocation become accessible, and the humor more delicious. By all means, make the acquaintance of these Six Characters.

Six Characters in Search of an Author, a Wonderlust Production, continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through May 8, 2016. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00. For tickets call 5651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.

Writer: Luigi Pirandello; Adaptation and Director: Alan Berks; Video Design and Direction: Paul Moehring; Scenic Design: Zeb Hults; Costume Design: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Design: Jesse Cogswell; Sound Design/Composer: Katherine Horowitz; Props Design: Sarah Salisbury; Puppet Design: Christopher Lutter-Gardella; Stage Manager: Jacob Miller; Assistant Director: Christian Bardin; Assistant Stage Manager: Tracy Swenson; Company Manager: Deb Ervin; Co-producer: Leah Cooper.

Cast: Michael T. Brown (Michael), Rachel Finch (Rachel), Kiara Jackson (Daughter), Sam Landman (Sam), Paul LaNave (Paul- the Director), Gabriel Murphy (Son), Sandra Struthers (Mother), Dana Lee Thompson (Ms. Nikeesha), Annika Wahlquist (Tech), Adam Whisner (Father), Joe Wiener (Joe- the Emcee).


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