Daniel Rader

Raison d’être: An Evening with Pirandello

Reviewer's Rating

The scene is set from the moment you descend beneath the cavernous old church on the Upper West Side which hosts Raison d’Etre: An Evening with Pirandello. The vaulted, painted ceilings are strung with lights, creating a magical dimension that feels apart from the streets from which you just stepped. This, too, is the feel of the world which is Raison d’Etre – it exists parallel to us, a dimension which is just strange enough to keep us out, and to keep its characters locked in, spiralling through their prewritten miseries with no hope for escape.

If you walk into Raison d’Etre like me, with no prior knowledge of Luigi Pirandello, you’re bound to be a little slow to the draw. But it is not long before you come to appreciate the artist whose works are celebrated in this production. Pirandello was an Italian writer and the winner of the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature, and perhaps most acclaimed for his plays. Raison d’Etre: An Evening with Pirandello is adapted from three of Pirandello’s works: “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” “Chee Chee,” and “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth.” Each play is a different exploration of human emotion, and each is explored differently in the context of the production.

The premise is this: a theater company – set in a vague 20th-century decade in which men wear suspenders and women where buckled shoes – are rehearsing for a show. As they prep for a day of rehearsals, they gripe to the director about how they must do Pirandello again – and yet, when the time comes, they heartily fling themselves into an energetic scene from Chee Chee. The theater troupe work well together and are comfortable in their roles; they have clearly done this many times. But their rehearsal is cut short when an enigmatic group of six people – eyes ringed with red, dripping in black, and dressed in what can only be described as turn-of-the-century steampunk – interrupt their work and demand the spotlight with a longing that seems to be as dire as life-and-death.

This, of course, are the eponymous Six Characters in Search of an Author. These Six demand that their story be played out, because that is their life’s purpose – they were created in a static reality in which the past and future have already been written, and the curse of their existence is to relive it. In particular, Lucie Allouche as the Stepdaughter is electric in her passion and pain. Their play unfolds within the play even as the bumbling Director tries to balance them – and the promise of a fresh show – with his increasingly exasperated actors and their ongoing rehearsals. Excerpts from Chee Chee provide comedic relief, while an extended scene from The Man With the Flower in His Mouth strips any absurdism or metatheatricalism, focusing on the power of Pirandello’s works to hone in on raw human emotion.

The intimate setting of the theater under the Blessed Sacrament Church casts a beautiful and also mournful atmosphere. It perfectly suits the dark, and yet utterly human themes that run throughout this production. And it is not just the space which is intimate – Pirandello’s words, adapted by Patrick Mulryan, conjure universes so strange as to imagine living characters who are summoned by thought alone, which still touch upon the different sadnesses of the souls in the audience. Raison d’Etre: An Evening With Pirandello is a unique experience that will leave you feeling transported.