Stage Animal In Perpetual Suspension

Roee Chen, who adapted the Hebrew version of Luigi Pirandello's 1921 play for a performance at the Gesher Theater, explains in the program his decision to change the familiar Hebrew title of Pirandello's most famous play, which in English is called "Six Characters in Search of an Author."

The original, and more metaphorical, Hebrew translation is "Shesh Nefashot Mehapsot Mehaber"; Chen changed the second word to "Demuyot." "Nefashot," which can mean "people," is misleading because, as Chen notes, it comes from the word for "soul" and can be associated with spirituality, while "demuyot" refers more clearly to characters.

However, the term "hanefashot hapoalot" is the standard theatrical Hebrew term for "cast of characters" - just as "dramatis personae" is used in English. Similarly, the original Italian title uses a word from the same root as "personae": "Sei Personaggi in Cerca D'autore."

The key word here is "personaggi" ("characters") - not necessarily in the day-to-day sense of "personalities," with all the complexity that word entails, but in the technical sense as used in the theater world, which is both where the play is set and one of the play's themes. In English, of course, someone referring to a character in a play is talking about a persona, not a specific trait.

I disagree with Chen that the choice of the Hebrew word "demut" to indicate the nature of the characters in the play stems from his adaptation of Pirandello's work - not because he is mistaken, but because the real emphasis of this fascinating play is not on the characters (or souls) but on the great mystery: the author.

This character was dismantled by the playwright himself - Pirandello, an Italian who was born in 1867 and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1934, two years before his death. At the start of the play, the director, stage manager and actors are supposed to start work on a Pirandello play called "The Rules of the Game" (such a play exists, and the audience that first watched "Six Characters" was familiar with it). They complain that it is difficult to understand, a play in which the characters scramble eggs and the director sarcastically explains that the actors must represent the egg shells. And the audience realizes that it is watching a play within a play; the play they are watching is essentially a rehearsal for the play they will see (or that they are already seeing).

Chekhov barks

In Chen's adaptation, he goes a step further in ridiculing the status of the author. Pirandello's previous play is not mentioned by name (though the actors complain that it is impossible for that play to do well). An actress comes to the rehearsal with her puppy, named Chekhov (this is Chen's creation). Chekhov gets locked in the dressing room, and he barks, creating a reference to Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog." For those familiar with the detailed history of Israeli theater, there is another charming point here: the late actress Elisheva Michaeli had a dog named Zaza who attended rehearsals and would start barking every time the word "zaza" appeared in the script.

In addition, the stage is raised and has empty chairs on it: we are on the inside. As the artificiality that is inseparable from theatrical pursuit is revealed, six otherworldly characters appear (Yevgeny Arye knows how to create the magical moment of characters appearing onstage as if from nowhere, materializing with the help of lighting by Avi-Yona Bueno, known as Bambi). The characters try to explain to the director, the actors and the audience that they are characters whom the author created; he wrote the story and then abandoned them.

And that is the conflict that is central this wonderful play: The characters would not have been created without the author. But as long as he does not complete the work of creation by putting them onstage, they are in a state of perpetual suspension. The director and the actors are dependent on the characters they inhabit - meaning that they are dependent on our conscious agreement to believe the illusion and be moved by it.

But we as an audience know that they are all actors, as well as characters. So what are we here? An audience? Or actors playing an audience? And perhaps in our "real lives" we are also just characters created by an author. After all, who is the author of our lives? Is it really us?

Perhaps in our lives, too, we started out all right but then the author abandoned us and we go from play to play, trying to understand our story; perhaps we will never know if the person before us is a character or an actor playing a character, and we will always be uncertain about who is establishing whether the illusion (of us or of them) is convincing enough.

The greatness of this play - along with the directing and the adaptation, which justifiably shortens the original and charmingly updates it - is that it brings these complexities to life.

Heart-wrenching soap opera

The plot resembles a heart-wrenching soap opera. A man lets his wife go with her lover and leave their son with him. The man leaves his son to be raised by a wet nurse and follows his ex-wife and her daughter (in this adaptation the daughter is also his, but he doesn't know it; in the original it is his stepdaughter). The climax of the play, the moment that turns the characters into actors, because this is the moment in which they are stuck forever, is the meeting between the father and his daughter (he is unaware that she is his real daughter and she does not know that he is her real father) in a brothel. The characters know that the mother will catch them "red-handed"; the director and the actors do not know. The characters cannot rest until they see their story materialize. But the actors will never manage to truly inhabit the characters.

"This is my life," the father says. "This is my play," the director states. But at the end of the play, or of the story of the characters, there are two corpses of innocent victims onstage: a girl who drowns in a pool and a boy who shoots himself with a pistol which the audience was told is a toy gun.

At the end of the play, the characters leave the stage and take the corpses with them and the director is convinced he wasted an entire morning on a group of crazy people. There are productions that utilize the message of the plot to say that death is what differentiates the character from the actor; one is in the living world and the other constantly faces the danger of death. This is not the interpretation of Arye and his actors. Lucy Dubinchik, who plays the little boy, is very impressive in her wordless concentration, rises from the dead and abandons the stage along with the other characters.

But Chen and Arye add a different ending: The director, who tried to find his way around the maze between the illusion and reality, turns into the author who has disappeared, and before our eyes starts writing the play we just saw.

It seems that in his choice of this play and in the way he directed it, Yevgeny Arye had something to say: In his play the characters find the author who abandoned them. And even when the director - that is, Arye - takes a work that someone else wrote, he eventually turns into the author.