Luigi Pirandello’s iconic play Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) is being reimagined at La MaMa this month. Theodora Skipitares led a multidisciplinary team in rendering the six famous characters as, alternately, glowing, sculptural puppets, oversized wooden ones, light installations, and video art. In this show, the characters not only seek an author but also jump between media in search of a medium.
Word-for-word renditions of Pirandello’s play have been done for decades. SIX CHARACTERS (a family album) is far more captivating because it goes off script and recreates the canonical work as a nonlinear series of dreams. Decoding the imagery, language, movement, and humor of each vignette allows us to see the metaphor of six characters searching for an author through several lenses — a way to do justice to Pirandello’s many layers.
At the start of the show, Pirandello, played by Thomas Walker, appears before the audience and wonders aloud, “Can an author ever tell how and why his imagination gives birth to a certain character? The mystery of artistic creation is the mystery of birth itself.” Each of the scenes that follows tries to answer Pirandello in a different way, exploring how artists give birth to their work.
After a brief introduction, the first puppet scene presents three tall Pinocchios interacting with each other and Geppetto. In his original play, Pirandello noticed that artists and writers don’t have one voice that speaks inside their head; they have many — even six — characters within, who don’t always get along. Just as the Pinocchios compete with each other for Geppetto’s attention in order to develop into “real boys,” these different inner characters vie for a creator’s nurturing attention in order to manifest in their work.
“These creatures of my brain were not living my life any longer,” Pirandello explains to the audience from the sidelines. “They were living a life of their own, and it was now beyond my power to deny them a life which was no longer in my control.”
The next scene — located on the upper level of the set — reenacts a moment between Oedpius and his mother, whom he marries. This incestuous relationship from Greek mythology suggests the complicated nature of the relationships between the characters in an artist’s head. They all come from the same source, and they love and hate, support and sabotage each other like only family can.
Building on the theme of family, a puppet Margaret Mead appears in a wheelchair to share some anthropological observations. “As far back as our knowledge takes us, human beings have lived in families. We know of no people who has succeeded for long in dissolving the family or displacing it.” In other words, we’re sort of stuck with the family unit. And even though families can be as messy as Greek mythology, as competitive as the Pinocchios, and as dissonant as the voices a writer hears in her head, they’re all we’ve got. The subtitling of this piece, “(a family album),” highlights Skipitares’s interest in how the framework of the family can help us understand Pirandello’s six characters in a new light.
Margaret Mead then leads the audience into a second room, where we take new seats. A scene of puppets glowing in the dark plays out, most closely resembling Pirandello’s original concept for the play, of six characters in a void. But by presenting the characters as masked puppets, instead of traditional actors in the flesh, Skipitares makes them feel more like the figments of imagination that Pirandello intended.
A haunting scene at the end of the show ushers glowing houses into the space. The houses offer testimonies from residents of Flint, Michigan — fictionalized accounts based on real events. The impacts of the toxic water are gruesome, and experiencing this story as theater, rather than through the news, allowed me to internalize the tragedy more deeply. The human family has failed (again) in Flint.
Pirandello ends the play by recalling an observation he wrote to his sister in a letter. He reflects that life is “like an enormous puppet show without connection or rationale.” At first glance, the scenes of SIX CHARACTERS might seem discombobulated, but coherence is overrated. These different dreams — animated by Skipitares and her team’s remarkable ability to turn puppets into picks mining poetic gold — allow us all to discover the six characters within each of us.