Art imitating life imitating art

Painless Productions’ latest show — an updated version of Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author — raises many intriguing spiritual dilemmas. But Sheldon Lawrence, who plays the pivotal role of the father, also notes a more practical difficulty.

“The main challenge in playing the father is that the guy has a lot of lines,” relates Lawrence. “He’s very verbose, and his speeches are complicated. It was tough to learn, because the people in the acting company were writing their own lines, and I didn’t know what mine were until the last minute.”

But when Lawrence says “acting company,” he doesn’t mean Painless Productions — not exactly, anyway. Pirandello’s tricky masterpiece, widely credited with helping change the face of modern drama, tells the story of six unmoored characters who show up at an acting company’s rehearsal and expect the actors to create stories for them, thereby justifying their existence. Because the play was written in 1921, director Steve Livingston felt the dialogue could use some retooling, so he had the actors portraying the ones in the play each update their own lines. It was art imitating life imitating art, ad infinitum, and the process was a lot more fun than it might sound, Lawrence notes.

“I’ve never done a play [with Painless Productions] that wasn’t fun to do,” he enthuses. “It’s a great cast, great people to work with. We didn’t have expectations, because the script was developed as we went along. … It’s been a fun direction. I like the way the acting-company members have developed their personas; they’ve added humor, because the drama of the characters is deadly serious. In most plays with tragic themes, there may be comic relief at some point. But here, the acting company injects humor into the middle of the tragedy, and that’s very unusual.”

This cocktail of fantasy, comedy and drama was a perfect choice for Painless Productions, asserts Lawrence, the company’s co-founder. Since 1993, the troupe’s unwavering mission has been to bestow unique presentations of modern plays on an unsuspecting audience. Mingling crowd and cast is standard practice at a Painless Productions show: Past productions have featured, among other surprises, a French maid sitting on audience members’ laps, and the “arrest” of a too-silent theatergoer. Six Characters continues this tradition by staging some of its scenes amid the audience.

Six Characters also features another Painless Productions hallmark — the fearless exploration of sensitive themes. “Some of the issues it touches on — such as incest, and the fine line between reality and illusion — are not likely to be explored by other [local] theater companies,” Lawrence points out.

The play, he continues, is also perfect for an intimate setting like the green door. “I’ve seen it done in larger venues, but it’s better in smaller venues, where the audience is on top of the action,” he believes.

On opening night, the play’s blurring of boundaries was seamlessly executed. The action starts before the play itself begins, and it occurs in every part of the theater. Disconcerting? Yes. But Painless Productions does it so well that it seems natural. Indeed, once one becomes accustomed to their special way of forging order through chaos, more traditional staging may seem hollow, if not outright dishonest.

And, despite the often-hilarious distractions provided by the “acting company,” the sight of the six characters in their separate hells remains arresting: There’s the stormy, effusive father, who stalks the stage, wringing his hands (“Haven’t we our own temperaments, our own souls?” he frets, after witnessing the acting company’s attempted portrayals of him and his fellow characters); the eerie spectacle of the masked and frightened mother and children; the tortured ranting of the grown, misunderstood son; and, most notably, the brilliance of Meagan Scherer in the role of the imperious stepdaughter.

Is it unjust, or merely inevitable, to be defined solely by one’s acts, to the exclusion of the soul’s true intent? How is the tragically autonomous character ever destined to outlive its author? And how can we retain our personal dignity in a society that’s rabid to destroy every trembling advance into human elasticity?

The sheer depth of this play’s philosophical aspirations could easily have made watching it a dry, intellectual experience. But Painless Productions uses gut-smart humor to knock the drama to an even higher level.

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11 thoughts on “Art imitating life imitating art

  1. Dionysis

    The thought of spending a weekend watching 16 films is pretty daunting. I’m not sure I’d be able to endure that kind of marathon anymore. However, I might be willing to give it a shot if I could catch, say, a Steve Reeves marathon or perhaps all of the Gordon Scott Tarzan films (fondly remembered from my childhood, and never released commercially).

  2. Much of my movie education was with 24 hour movie marathons when I was a teenager. My good friend Frank who is 2 years older than me would bring back from college a treasure trove of bizarre and wonderful movies. We saw everything from Fellini to The Deadly Spawn.

    I’d be up for another marathon Ken but not for 36 hours!

  3. Thomas Marx

    Wow Kenny. You got a good one going today. I loved growing up with Spanky and Our Gang. Also loved Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges. Bring back the ol slapstick I say. Stymie and Buckwheat…behave yourselves now ya hear!

  4. Dionysis

    A fascinating piece, Ken. As a kid, I watched many of these episodes, but now realize that they were, for the most part, the later ones. I now feel a compelling desire to purchase the boxed set too.

    While this may be oh-so politically incorrect, I wish a good quality box set of Amos N Andy would come out (a bootleg box set was floating around a couple of years ago). I’ll never forget The Kingfish from that show.

    In any event, thanks for this informative and enjoyable review.

  5. Ken Hanke

    A friend of mine, Greg, from the early 1970s wrote me a letter after reading this about how he could probably find comfort in dredging up the audio recordings he made as a teenager of Charlie Chan’s Secret, The Cocoanuts, Mark of Zorro, The Old-fashioned Way, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, Isle of the Dead, Way Out West, Yellow Submarine, Revenge of the Zombies, The Black Raven, and some episodes of You Bet Your Life. He also noted that he would likely get more out of listening to these than from actually watching the movies.

    Younger readers may find the idea of recording the soundtracks hard to imagine, but in those pre-VCR days it wasn’t all that uncommon. I know that one of our readers, Chip Kaufman, also indulged in this form of collecting (“That’s how you learn the dialogue,” he once told me).

    Greg’s notion of getting more out of the soundtrack recordings is obviously based on nostalgia for the era as much as for the films themselves, but he raises an interesting point by accident, since every one of the films I cited were titles I first owned in this picture-less form. Moreover, when I put the movies on these days, I’m actually apt to be listening to them more than watching them (the luxury of just sitting down and watching them is often not something that can be reconciled with my “free time”). The appeal — and the comfort — has much to do with the sound of these movies and their familiarity. This probably accounts for the lack of silents and foreign language films on the list.

  6. Harper

    My ultimate comfort-food movie would definitely be Tremors – something about watching those giant worms terrorize Kevin Bacon just makes my own daily trials seem petty and insignificant by comparison.

  7. Kevin F.

    This must be generational, because my “comfort food” films have become THE RUTLES: ALL YOU NEED IS CASH, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, and HOT FUZZ.

    I don’t know why it happened, but over the last two years these films have done more to get me out of bad moves than any others.

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