At Berkshire Theatre Group, a 1922 play cut from today's headlines
STOCKBRIDGE — Among the themes in an upcoming Berkshire Theatre Group production is "the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all) which is discovered to be vain and illusory." Another is the exploitation of a woman by the men in her life.
Sound like a contemporary drama about our government and the #Metoo movement?
Not at all! The play is Luigi Pirandello's 1922 "Naked" and the above quote belongs to the playwright, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934. In a conversation with the Eagle, Eric Hill, who is directing the production — which opens Saturday evening at BTG's Unicorn Theatre after a series of previews — emphasizes the importance of the events going on at the time the play was written as "a world that's transitioning . . . 1920s Italy is in an upheaval, post World War I and values, structures of the culture, mores are being challenged."
The main character is "a woman caught in that world of transition. She has very normal human feelings for which the culture has absolutely no accommodation and so she seeks to find her way through all that and ends up simply becoming the victim of every male she comes in contact with." Her plight is highlighted by a prominent window on the set, which Hill refers to as "a character in the play," revealing the noise and chaos going on in the street below.
This woman, Ersilia Drei, played by BTG veteran Tara Franklin, has attempted suicide after her dismissal as governess following the accidental death of the child in her care. Franklin says "she knows the truth that nobody else knows. The attempted suicide has put her at a place that no one else can really understand. Now she can say anything — there's no sense of consequence for her." According to Hill, "the way she's ultimately treated [by these men] gives you a clear indication of why she did what she did in the first place." Franklin says that "she had no other option."
Rocco Sisto, who plays a sympathetic novelist offering shelter to Drei, points out Pirandello's contribution to modern drama: "Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen were talking about societal pressures on us and Pirandello took that farther," Sisto said. "He delves into the psychology of the characters." Hill argues that this is not Freudian but modern in the sense that "man [not God] becomes the focus of everything. Once you move into that realm you move into consciousness and there's all kinds of unknown things that are going on in there."
Not surprisingly, "Naked" presents challenges for American actors who are trained in naturalistic techniques. Pirandello uses other means to tell his story, says Hill. His theater is "not simply a tool for the expression of naturalism but a tool for the full theatrical realm of possibilities." Because every character has his/her own interpretation of the events, leading to an "incredibly entangled story," Hill maintains that the story is not what matters but, rather, it is the reactions of the people who don't see the events in the same way. Alternative facts? Perception is all.
Barbara Sims, who plays the novelist's landlady, describes how cast members search for an acting style that fits the text. "In the first couple of days of rehearsal we picked the play apart, literally, like unknitting a sweater, Sims said. The actress considers "Naked" to be Shakespearean in the sense that it "turns on a dime, there is no subtext, everything is on the line [not between the lines]. You don't stop and look at the heavens and ponder for a moment. It's not Arthur Miller. It's about reacting — like a game of catch," she said. "You react so that you don't get hit in the face with the ball." Pirandello's characters are constantly forced to adjust and adapt to change.
For Sisto, "the function of theater is to ask the questions that can't be answered; to keep on questioning. Sure," he said, "when the audience is caught off guard they get scared; it wasn't what they expected. But that's what has to happen in theater or it becomes complacent."
Pirandello's theater is never complacent. Whatever its other virtues, "Naked" certainly defies expectations.
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