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Pirandello's 'Author' loses itself in translation at Culbreth

"Six Characters in Search of an Author," the modernist farce by Luigi Pirandello, was one of the first major influences of the Theatre of the Absurd. Its "play within a play" structure made it a malleable work. However, director Richard Warner's current rendition at the Culbreth bends it to the breaking point, and it nearly snaps in the face of the audience.

"Author" opens with cast and crew rehearsing, when they are interrupted by a group of strangers. These strangers turn out to be characters, who ask director Jason Kehler (playing himself, as do all members of the fictitious cast and crew) for permission to tell their story. The father (Chris Harcum, stoic and strong) explains that the author who created them never finished their story, so they are unrealized characters who have yet to be fully brought to life.

The four "characters" that tell their story in the first act all command the stage individually, providing exposition through monologues divided among them. But these speeches never coalesce into something more fluid. Instead, Warner's action divides his cast into two camps: one that acts and one that reacts, with neither flowing quite naturally. The onus then falls on Kehler to bridge the two worlds. He succeeds only because of his sense of humor.

In fact, Warner's production undermines its own dramatic didacticism. It is talky when it should be showy, particularly in the middle of the first act. "Author" gets caught up in its own chaos and actually reconstructs the fourth wall it breaks down, thus disengaging the audience it supposedly addresses directly.

The second act is an improvement, as it reaches its zenith when differentiating the line between simply playing somebody and actually being a character. These characters are real people, and "Author" shows both sides of translating real life into a dramatic representation and what happens when real people see their lives interpreted by others who pretend to be them. The "characters" claiming to be more real than the actors, since the actors' stories change from day to day, while the characters' are constant.

But even though the second act does practice what it preaches, it suffers from a different problem. It is too static to adequately illustrate the rising action-climax-falling-action structure. Warner permits too much shouting (the brunt of which must be borne by poor Ben Schenkkan), and creates a constant in-your-face atmosphere that doesn't leave any room for anticipation. "Author" is so busy bombarding us with action that it never lets us absorb anything. Pirandello's work is the root cause of this, but perhaps more deliberate blocking and a pace with more of an ebb and flow to it would have helped.

What does help the show are several of its ensemble performers. Standouts include Sarah Drew, a one-woman whirlwind of emotions as the stepdaughter, one of the "characters," and both Keith Lubeley and Michael Patrick display some subtly impressive work as tow of the "actors." Adam Reno, another "actor," has the best lines, but they range from sarcastic to overly snide, which can at times distract from the action.

Another major flaw of Warner's production is how off-putting it is. It's one thing to localize the show with references to First Year Players, the Engineering School and Anthony Hopkins' recent visit to the University's Drama Department. But "Author" also utilizes many self-indulgent inside jokes, including jabs at Kehler's own performance as Stanley Kowalski in last spring's "A Streetcar Named Desire." The only laughs at these gags came from other department members in the back of the theater on Thursday's opening night performance.

Still, no complaints justify depriving the actors of a curtain call at the end of the show's two-hour run, which makes it go out with barely a whimper.

Midway through the second act, Reno gets a jab in at The Cavalier Daily. Touch