Tuesday, February 7, 2012

TOWER OF TERROR, BASEMENT OF BEWILDERMENT -- 'Six Characters in Search of an Author' at The Hypocrites

Every show by The Hypocrites has a sweet and special way of making you feel like a kid again. The rapturous joy of Pirates of Penzance, the storybook lessons of Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses, and the rich, cornered solitude of Woyzeck all connected me in the most heartfelt sense to my own, more innocent past. And now, in her inaugural debut as Artistic Director, Halena Kays, has dug ever deeper into the complex psyche of youth, trapping audiences in an all-engulfing haunted house. But this haunted house has none of the connotational holiday cheesiness that usually comes to mind, but rather lingering, contemplative terror. This razor-sharp, renovated Six Characters In Search of an Author curdles the blood and satiates the mind.

Director Kays’ uniquely stamped renovation makes one killer, profound choice – it includes the audience. Luigi Pirandello's play was originally set during the rehearsal of another Pirandello play on an essentially bare, proscenium stage. But in Steve Moulds’ premiere adaptation, the playwright has taken Luigi’s framework and made it company-specific, inviting the audience to an open rehearsal for a new tour of The Pirates of Penzance, which in actuality closed only three weeks ago. This remarkably intelligent move places the audience inside of the play; with the action occurring on stages perched all around the room. So, when the ghoulish family enters the basement (the most paralyzing moment onstage this season), your personal space becomes violated and disturbed in the most theatrically satisfying way imaginable.

Upon entering, the characters implore the raucously stereotypical actors (John Taflan and Laura McKenzie), stage manager (Ryan Walters) and director (a sarcastically charismatic Brennan Buhl) to put the tale of their lives, a melodrama of incest, murder, and momentous tragedy, onstage in a play. That’s what they do, right? They create plays. But seeing those grotesque, horrific events acted out before their eyes as a cheap, stunted fabrication of such blinding pain proves intolerable cruelty. And the six characters are forced to relive and reembody their darkest moments, as the actors and audience watch on, dumbstruck.

Six Characters in Search of an Author is considered a significant stepping-stone in modern drama. A reaction to the onset of realism, the initial reactions of audiences were impassioned and often real bitter. But too frequently is the play’s true brilliance muddled by that immense scholarly worth, with productions and adaptations being intellectually crowded by the playwright's complicated thought process. This stylish adaptation by Steve Moulds takes much of the plotiness out of Pirandello's talkier original and brings nuanced focus and heightened trauma to the six characters' forlorn plight.

Their tragedy is echoed in Scenic Designer Lizzie Bracken’s quiet battleground set in the Chopin basement theatre. The space is still littered with backyard kiddie pools, strewn about Christmas lights, and dismantled pieces of the Pirates runway stage; the dead remnants of a beach party laid to rest in a woeful, drafty crypt. The six characters float about the room, amidst the endlessly curious audience, lost in a hopeless, tragic, ideological purgatory.

Six Characters is cast with skillfull consideration and a Poe-etic aesthetic by Kays. The six characters (Father, Mother, Son, Stepdaughter, Boy, and Girl) together create a silhouette so memorable that I shudder, even now, thinking of its amoebic togetherness and hopeless emanation. Adorned in Alison Heryer’s svelt, yet modest modern gothic costumes, they are coldly removed yet creepily metropolitan. Samantha Gleisten’s performance as Mother bleeds sincerity and maternal desire, wanting so much but receiving so little. As Son, Ted Evans makes impeccable use of his imposing brow, giving piercing stares that could perceivably blind any nonchalant onlooker who meets his gaze.

Father, Larry Garner, while appropriately ghastly, occasionally becomes a twitch too similar to a Magician, overstuffing his performance with conjurer’s hands and quick, twisted speech patterns. The mood he carries, however, is aptly sinister and emotionally heavy, giving credence to his paternal leadership. But attached at the hip of these sinister adult performances are two young kids giving shockingly complex turns that solidify the production’s already monstrous tension.

Too often do children become necessary space-fillers in plays. They have to be included in order to complete the family unit, but child actors typically, through no fault of their own, cannot act as capably as the adults they are put onstage with. But Halena Kays has struck gold with Ada Grey and Michael Milito, playing Girl and Boy respectively in this production. Although they speak not a single word, their wounded facades talk with stronger conviction than any other character. Their moments together are spontaneous and devastatingly serene, oozing an iconic Children of The Corn creepiness, but with tremendous suffering beneath their glazed expressions.

Kays' ingenuity with fluid use of space coupled with Steve Moulds' enticing new adaptation have given life to some of the most alluring and terrifying images I have ever seen on a stage, and certainly the most breathtaking pictures of season. The audience is seated on swivel chairs with 360 degrees of motion, allowing for the strange deception of freedom. You can spin in all directions, yet you cannot break from where you spin; the illusion of being unchained.

Six Characters is a play of illusions, in fact. The characters become an illusion to the rehearsing actors as they begin to question the nature of their existence. And strangely those meta-theatrical actors and creatives become illusions to us, the audience. Characters upon characters. Perhaps we too are just another notch on that vicious cycle; characters ourselves, also being watched. Searching for an author.

Six Characters in Search of an Author seemed, to me, like an offbeat choice for the Hypocrites, a company known for bestowing its playfulness onto stuffy, but nonetheless compelling aging dramas. But as the play went on, Kays’ intentions became transparently clear. You see, there is a scene in which the Actor and Actress portray a rendezvous in the back room of a sleazy dress shop. The scene plays out for only a few seconds before a fight breaks out over the rehearsal furniture. Madame Pace’s pale yellow, intricate couch has been replaced with a rough and tumble, black rehearsal block, which makes Father and Stepdaughter absolutely irate. The characters wonder how their story could possibly be realistically depicted using stand-in furniture, street clothes, and thrift store props, reiterating Pirandello’s own commentary on realism.

That got me thinking… Here, in Chicago, where the theatre has bestially gnawed at realism’s connective tissue for decades, reside The Hypocrites, who, in their own way, ask that same question with every production they put up. How can artists realistically tell a story? With Six Characters in Search of an Author, new Artistic Director Halena Kays is asking that question once more; redefining the real, embracing the obscure, and rebelling against the tired norm.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Six Characters in Search of an Author' runs through March 11 at The Chopin Theatre.