Characters in Abundance

On stages near you: English women on holiday, personalities seeking plays, and a raucous Tupperware party

In any play, it ultimately comes down to who controls the character.

In Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, currently enjoying an insightful production from Rogue Theatre, the characters are famously on the loose, looking for someone to help them shape their story--preferably without those pesky intermediaries called actors. At Invisible Theatre, Dixie's Tupperware Party allows the author to bring the character he's created--his alter ego?--to rambunctious life himself. Meanwhile, Arizona Theatre Company has mounted a lovely, amusing and touching play whose main character has been pushed in a direction that the story does not warrant.

ATC's Enchanted April is Matthew Barber's recent adaptation of a 1920s novel about four quite different English women who seek regeneration in sunny Italy. Lotty Wilton is married to an overbearing attorney, and she's starting to get the feeling that her life is all "before," without the rewarding "after." Rose Arnott is the pious, rather repressed wife of an increasingly popular novelist; something unfortunate has happened in their marriage, and they have been drifting apart. Caroline Bramble is an aristocratic socialite in the form of a flapper with a tragic romantic past. Mrs. Graves is a strict, intimidating elderly woman whose life, like Lotty's, is assuredly all "before," and she spends her days reflecting on the attractive nature of her past.

The women wind up sharing an Italian villa for a month, and, of course, each is transformed by the experience. Then the men start showing up: Lotty's and Rose's husbands, and the dashing owner of the villa. Most of these developments cause much grumbling from the Italian servant, Costanza.

There are many wonderful things about this production: Maggie Morgan's period- and character-perfect costumes, David Lee Cuthbert's sensitive lighting, and especially Kent Dorsey's scenic design--wonderfully dark and drab for the London scenes, with superb rear projections of rainy cityscapes, and a voluptuous, flower-draped second-act villa. It's the sort of set designed to draw applause--and that's exactly the problem when it comes to the contribution of director Timothy Near.

Much of the action plays so broadly, especially in the second act, that the performance tramples the play's delicacy of emotion. Early on, when Lady Caroline first meets Lotty and Rose, she observes that they look like widows. Yes, it's an amusing line, but its effect here is purely comedic; Caroline's sadness, and that of Lotty and Rose, fail to come across as anything more than ennui. Worse, toward the end, when two characters kiss, everything we've seen of these people would suggest a shy, hesitant approach, but here, the man grabs the woman impulsively. Director Near is milking the moment for a little ovation, and in doing so, the kiss becomes just another grand gesture, as crude in its lack of nuance as Costanza's habit of flipping off people behind their backs.

Most fatally, Near leads Finnerty Steeves, by all appearances an excellent actress, into a misconceived characterization of Lotty. True, she's described as having a mind like a butterfly, but this doesn't justify Steeves' nonstop giddiness. From the very beginning, she's a giggly chatterbox, already full of life. She has nowhere to grow once Lotty finds liberation in Italy. This character, who supposedly begins in pastels of wistful sadness, has all her emotions immediately amped up into a uniform, antic desperation. From beginning to end, Lotty is merely an ingenue manquée.

I suspect that with different guidance, Steeves could turn Lotty into a much more complicated figure. Certainly, she's part of a fine ensemble: Kathryn Meisle's Rose is never reduced merely to a pious sourpuss; Monette Magrath's Lady Caroline has that undercurrent of sadness that Lotty ought to share; and Patricia Kilgarriff brings much more subtlety to stuffy old Mrs. Graves than one would expect in this atmosphere--in the second act, watch her character transform by small degrees purely through little shifts of facial muscles.

Matthew Floyd Miller is good as Lotty's husband, although by the end, his character has had to endure some cartoonish moments; Al Espinosa as Rose's husband and Tony Roach as the villa's owner manage their emotional undercurrents very well. Lynne Soffer is a hoot as Costanza, playing the saucy servant entirely in convincing Italian.

If only the play's main character were equally convincing.

Rogue Theatre never condescends to its audience, and its confidence is justified, judging from an intelligent post-performance talkback after one of last weekend's shows.

The subject was Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which a theatrical company's preparations for a show are interrupted by a half-dozen nameless but individually distinct personalities pleading that their experiences be given life on stage.

These figures--a father, a mother and four offspring of various ages and degrees of resentment--are actually characters that Pirandello had been toying with but had not managed to work into a finished story. Perhaps their experiences were too melodramatic for the author's own taste. So here they are, six Characters abandoned by their author, showing up to demand truth and realism in what is actually a quasi-absurdist tragicomedy. There are many choice observations on the nature of the theater and of existence itself, but the script does not devolve into a musty Shavian debate; the Characters' story does gradually unfold, and it culminates in a very effective coup de théâtre.

Rogue is presenting a new translation and custom adaptation by Patrick Baliani, who has done a miraculous job of bringing contemporary "realism" to the members of the theater company, while retaining the formality of expression of the phantom Characters without making it stilted or faux-British. The original script has an Italian company rehearsing another Pirandello play when they're interrupted; here, it's people bearing the names of the actors themselves, rehearsing Rogue's upcoming production of Orlando. All the theatrical references are Rogue-specific--even the props, pulled out of storage after being locked away following certain shows over the past couple of seasons. Director David Morden marvelously gets this segment of the ensemble (led by Matt Bowdren, Martie van der Voort, Chris Farishon and Todd Fitzpatrick) to come across as "real" people, much of their work giving the illusion of spontaneity and improvisation.

A good thing, too, because these roles are not nearly as gratifying as those of the Characters, primarily the Father and the Stepdaughter. As the Father, J. Andrew McGrath brings a very dignified sort of desperation to the proceedings; as always, McGrath is able to command the stage without commandeering it from his fellow actors. Laine Peterson is properly insolent as the Stepdaughter. If there's anything to criticize, it's that her natural accent has a certain nasal flatness that initially makes her delivery seem less nuanced than it really is.

Once you've seen Rogue's Six Characters, keep musing about the nature of existence, free will, the social construction of reality and the problem of realism on stage as you head over to Invisible Theatre for Dixie's Tupperware Party--for that show is an actual, honest-to-god Tupperware party.

On your way in, you'll be handed a nametag and the latest 56-page, full-color Tupperware catalog, on the back of which the "Tupperware consultant" is listed as one Dixie Longate.

When you settle in, you'll be treated to a 90-minute Tupperware demonstration by Dixie, an attractive example of Southern trailer-trash. She's a single mother whose parole officer insisted that she get a job, and since turning tricks got her into jail in the first place, selling Tupperware seemed like the next best thing.

Yet this is also a show, written by a fellow named Kris Andersson, and if you managed to get enough Jack Daniels into Dixie (admittedly not much of a challenge), you might have a chance to look up Dixie's very short skirt and find Andersson lurking there.

Even so, Dixie is, in her own very special way, entirely convincing. And forthright. She has an offhand way of referring to Tupperware as "crap" even as she extols its many virtues, but then she also affectionately calls other women (victims from the audience) "hooker," and happily implicates them in her recent salacious activities (all it takes is a coy " 'member?").

It must be said that Dixie sometimes betrays an undercurrent of aggression, as when she jabs her finger toward the face of someone in the front row and says, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no ... ." I lost count of how many times she said "no." I also lost track of much of Dixie's rapid-fire patter; it goes by so fast that even if you can't tell that the content itself is funny, the overall effect is hilarious. And when you do catch what she says, it makes you laugh, even if it doesn't make complete sense, like, "It struck me like a police nightstick during Black History Month."

If you have an aversion to being a participating audience member, don't sit in the two front rows, or on the stage, or near the aisles, and do not admit to having won a drawing. And if you have an aversion to sexual innuendo, don't even go near the show. Two of many examples: Dixie points out that one of her Tupperware items is "ribbed for your pleasure," and later launches into an extended segment on the joys of rimming. (It has to do with the Tupperware sealing method, I'll have you know.)

Andersson has complete control of his material and his character, and brings Dixie vividly to life. So much so that after the performance, you may just go up to Dixie in the lobby with your Tupperware catalog and, in Dixie's own words, "buy buttloads of this crap."

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