At Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, seven characters in search of a play

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STOCKBRIDGE — Getting to the heart of Luigi Pirandello's "Naked," even in a production as forcefully acted as the one at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theatre, is a little like trying to penetrate a forbidding, overgrown jungle with a dull machete.

Written in 1922 and performed here in a 1998 adaptation of Pirandello's "Clothing the Naked" by London-based South African-born playwright Nicholas Wright for London's Almeida Theatre, "Naked" centers on a tormented young woman named Ersilia Drei (Tara Franklin in a superbly crafted, go-for-broke performance) who has become a celebrity in perhaps the worst way. She is recovering from a suicide attempt following the horrible death of a young child in her care as a governess. The newspaper account has caught the attention of an older successful novelist, Ludovico Nota (a towering and imposing, at least in his opening moments, Rocco Sisto), who takes her under his protective wing for reasons all his own as both an artist and as a man.

Her story, as it turns out, is complex. Truth is not as simple as either she, or anyone else for that matter, would hope. It turns out she is at the center of a scandalous relationship with her employer at the time of the child's death, a married consul named Grotti (Jeffrey Doornbos in a performance valiantly in search of definition). She's also been abandoned by her former lover and fiance, a distraught Navy lieutenant named Franco Laspiga (an unrelentingly passionate and earnest James Barry), who left Ersilia to marry another women and now has reappeared in Ersilia's life, determined to win her back.

The novelist's landlady, Signora Onoria (crisply played, in her opening scenes at least, by Barbara Sims) is ready to throw Ersilia out when Nota brings her to his apartment but becomes only too solicitous when she realizes who Ersilia is.

A 1934 Nobel Prize Laureate for literature, Pirandello is best known in the U.S. for "Six Characters in Search of an Author," in which six unfinished characters in a play turn up at a rehearsal of another play in search of a writer who will finish their story. Written in 1921, one year before "Clothing the Naked," it's quintessential Pirandello in its examination of issues surrounding reality, truth, art, imagination.

Here, in his treatment of Gaynor Macfarlane's literal translation of "Clothing the Naked," Wright examines the effects of public notoriety on a young woman, in particular, who is defined by what has been written about her and the ways in which the men in her life — the consul, the novelist, her ex-fiance, the journalist (played credibly by David Adkins) — see her. At root is her need to define herself in her own terms and, in the process, find her own identity. She, too, plays the role — victim, Madonna, whore, aggressor, liar, innocent — until, finally, in the end, she finds the only way she can to assert her nature.

"You see," she says to Franco and Grotti, "all we want from life is to be treated with respect. The more we're covered in filth, the more we long for something beautiful to wear. ... I wanted to die in something better than squalor and filth. I wanted to turn my death into something clean and fine."

Director Eric Hill's production moves with determination, conviction and unyielding, almost larger-than-life, passion. The driving force is Franklin's galvanic work which takes Ersilia from confused, tired, worn wretch to a hard, focused, unforgiving woman in an unwelcome and unexpected encounter with Doorbos' meltaway Gotti, to, in the end, a pale, wan figure who, in those closing moments, is, nevertheless, more in command of her destiny. But the journey she takes, the arc she traces to get to that point, is thick and dense.

Hill has given the play and his production a sharp dramatic edge and focus by shifting Wright's placement of the break between the "Naked's" two acts and dividing the play into, effectively, three segments. Still, the production veers uneasily among its stylistic elements — melodrama, black comedy, Absurdism, farce. There is a leaden archaic strain to the dialogue. The brushstrokes are big, bold and applied with little nuance and only occasional detail.

All that Pirandellian sweep does little to draw an audience in. Rather than engage, "Naked" wears you down, long past caring for either the play's intellectual arguments or its emotional resonances. In the end, "Naked" exposes little and reveals even less.


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