Pirandello's "Six Characters In Search of An Author," which was given at Kirby this past weekend and the weekend before Homecoming, is a puzzling play, one that veers erratically from sharp provocative ideas to tedious obviousness, from heavy-handedness to subtle intricate nuance, and from dusty quaintness to wildly biting satire and sudden bursts of desperate passion. It's quite a collection, all in all, and notoriously difficult to control in production. However, the Kirby production was a fluid, generally confident, and, most important, finally a really affecting mounting of the play, one of the landmarks of this century's drama.
I thought this production might have been completely excellent had it not been for one glaring fault, a big one, and one that may be almost impossible to avoid in a College production of this play. In fact, it is a tribute to the care of the director, Prof. Walter Boughton, and actors of the Kirby production that this flaw didn't completely smother the breath of the play.
The flaw concerns about eight or nine actors, who played the "company," the motley collection of mediocre actors, technicians and a director in a second-rate theatre. They were all awesomely terrible. Now, admittedly, they have difficult parts to carry off … in the beginning they're supposed to be a modified caricatured version of themselves, i.e. college "theatre folk." They improvise chatter using their own, names, make trivial dialogue, construct stupid jokes, inane puns, obnoxious put-downs, and generally are supposed to behave like any extraordinarily "dumb" group of actors, technicians, crew men etc. … Unfortunately they act too dumb … Or more specifically, they act too dumbly … Rather than seem natural, they seem uncomfortably awkward and self-conscious. Rather than seem shallow, they seem totally empty. Rather than seem smoothly self-centered, they become unctuously aggressive to the audience's attention, and an effect caricatures become very bloated deliberate cartoons. They're not just being up there on stage, as they should be at the beginning, they're acting strenuously at just being.
And then, when written dialogue takes over, since no natural rhythmic flow has been established, the "company" members resort to mugging rather than acting, to spelling out rather than, suggesting. Also, as the play progresses, Pirandello's dialogue for the company clashes ludicrously with the slick, exaggerated, collegiate one-upsmanship and smooth-talk that preceded it. To put it simply, you can't believe in these "presences" on stage as either actors or characters because a presence, though it need not be on a fully developed character, must have weight and conviction, even in expressing lightness and lack of conviction. You cannot be shallow in playing someone shallow.
A good example: one of the "company," a stage hand, constantly looks around for his hammer … he should be naturally stupid, innocently unaware, and sublimely vacuum-cleaned. But, as it was played in this production by Ken Hoxie, the character mugged it up incessantly, milking the rather dry part for all it was worth, which of course shouldn't have been anything. By laughing at the character, saying Look how funny this guy is that I'm playing, Hoxie separated himself from the role and obliterated whatever naturalness Pirandello wished for. This was true in various ways for all the "company" players.
But the other half of the play, the six characters, were very assured, convincing, excellently directed, and often quite eloquent and moving. They all had trouble with some of the more convoluted realities of emotion at each specified moment but easily compensated with broadly developed finely shaped and superbly detailed portraits. Stephen Collins, Sarah Harris, and Meri Golden were especially fine an the most important roles.
So, overall, a sturdy job, with that big problem … every now and then, the mood of the play was a bit restrained, as if the script was approached with too 'much caution', too many safe tableaus, too little motion, but in the end, the effect was powerful, the result of a mounting gradual build.
Since this is probably the last review I'm going to write of 'a Kirby Theatre Masquers' production, I want to say a few things connected with the subject that I think relevant, though maybe not particularly or universally interesting.
First, some members of the cast of "Six Characters" seemed upset that this review was printed after the play finished its run. The reason is that I've come to the conclusion after a lot of experimenting, often with unsatisfactory results, that the best way to deal with a review is to print it after a run is over, when it won't affect people's attendance either way: it won't keep them from going, on the basis of one student's opinion, whose taste, judgement, artistic commitment, and general mental health may be of dubious nature, even in the impeccable pages of the STUDENT.
And it won't influence people to go for the same often irrelevant reasons, like wind blowing dust around at will. I don't think a review at a college should even bother saying what's good or bad for the purpose of influencing people to go or not. Rather, they should provide a perspective, a resonance within which the play's voices can rebound and be discussed.
I specifically think it's totally unnecessary to make comparisons between productions, and I was annoyed by recent statements in the original "Exit the King" review that made needless senseless parallels between Kirby and Converse. "The design of Kirby is about as suited to avant-garde drama as Shea Stadium is for a Baroque Chamber Ensemble." This sort of thing is easy sniping, and unfair to all involved. It is ludicrous and a waste of energy to treat theatre here like competitive sports. I've written some pieces in the past that had a bit of this tone-quality but I think things have changed a tremendous amount for the better in the theatre scene here for the last year and what's needed now is close energetic creative co-operation among the students and the faculty. And I think that's happening.
I also think it's interesting to note, considering the recent debates on teaching creative arts in the college, that Professor Boughton has suggested for years that a small independent student theatre be built in which students would be completely free to work as they would like. For practical reasons, the theatre Professor Boughton has energetically recommended could not be built but the drama department does offer full aid to Stone, Converse plays, and to student plays at Kirby. The department also gives students the major voice it picking out plays to be mounted at Kirby, an important factor in opening up creative potential for students in drama here. I still have some differences with the department, but I think it's worth noting the close relationship they have in the doing of the creative arts with students here.
Finally, a thought I just can't get out of my head: What makes the Kirby audiences generally so bad, so unbelievably bad … I don't want to keep going on this, because it's snotty sounding enough as it is, but Sunday night's audience was one of the worst I've ever been in, giggling stupidly at one childish joke after another … In fact, when ane character called another a bitch there were actually gasps from all over the house … Gasps … I find that incredible …
—by Jim, Steinman '69
Source: Amherst Student archives