Thursday, August 25, 2016

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Blurring the line between fiction and reality
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Aug. 25, 2016
Steve Gallion as the Father and Kathryn Grace Philbrook as the Director, photos courtesy New Muses Theatre

New Muses Theatre Company is among a handful of lesser-known companies that produces excellent theater for mostly sparse audiences. By my count, here were only 10 people in the audience opening night of Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Audience. The actors outnumbered the audience by one.
That small audience witnessed an intelligent, challenging, well-written and well-acted play.
It is a play that calls into question the relationships between fiction and reality, between actors and the characters they play, and between characters and the author. In New Muses’ interpretation, it starts before it starts with a bit of pre-curtain play between two actors (Vivian Bettoni and Eric Cuestas-Thompson) playing a couple of unnamed actors running lines before rehearsal. They stand off to the side and speak softly as the audience enters. Most of the audience can’t hear them and perceptibly pay no attention. It is almost as if the audience is an unwilling part of the play. I was sitting close to the two actors and could hear that their dialogue was about the age-old question of the chicken and the egg. The play they are preparing to rehearse is Mixing It Up, also by Pirandello. I thought this pre-play bit was inventive but slightly confusing, and that it was too long. But it segued nicely into the actual play, which starts out even more confusing but soon begins to make sense. And it did make me wonder if others who seemed to be entering as audience members might also be actors.
Amina Ali and Steve Gallion
Just as the director (Kathryn Grace Philbrook) gets ready to start the rehearsal, a strange family invades the theater. The director tells them it’s a closed rehearsal and they have to leave, but they refuse. The father (Steve Gallion) says they are looking for an author. They are unfinished characters in an unfinished play, and they have to find the author in order to complete themselves. At first, the director is outraged, but as the father and his stepdaughter (Amina Ali) began to tell their story, the director becomes intrigued and decides to produce their story as a play with the highly skeptical actors playing the parts of these real characters. So the director and the family argue over their story and how to present it, and the family — most adamantly father and the stepdaughter, who laughs outrageously in the actors’ faces, —thinking the actors are doing a terrible job of portraying them.
The family’s story is that the father had sent his wife (Becky Cain-Kellogg) and their son (Karter Duff) away, and she later had three more children by another man: two younger children (11-year-old Corey Cross and 7-year-old Keiralee Monta), and the now grown stepdaughter, whom the father tried to seduce, ostensibly not knowing who she was.
It is a wild and imaginative play filled with absurdist arguments about what is real and what is play acting and about the relationships between actors, the characters they play, and authors, without whom the characters cannot exist. It is presented in the round with no set decoration and no set pieces other than a table and a few chairs.
Niclas Olson, founder and managing artistic director of New Muses, adapted Pirandello’s play and does a fine job of directing it. The three lead characters, Gallion, Philbrook and Ali, are outstanding, making unbelievable characters totally believable. Ali is brash and seductive, and has a marvelous laugh. Philbrook plays the director as a most complex character, arrogant and sure of herself, which turns out to be a cover-up for self-doubt. She beautifully and convincingly portrays the director’s astonishment at the audacity to these interlopers at her rehearsal. And by-the-way, the director was a man in the original. Gallion plays the father as a kind of bumbling but sincere man who lurches around the stage in a manner that brings to mind Peter Falk as Columbo. I’ve seen Gallion in only one other play, New Muses’ Romeo and Juliet; I hope to see much more of him.
Six Characters in Search of an Author is presented in one act and runs approximately 90 minutes.
Six Characters in Search of an Author, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through Aug. 28, $10, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., 

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