THEATER REVIEW: BTG’s ‘Naked’ sizzles with perfection
By Luigi Pirandello, in a new version by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Eric Hill
“I thought she was my creation … I was hers.”
When, in 1934, Luigi Pirandello, Italian novelist, playwright and poet, received the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was hailed for “his almost magical power to turn psychological analysis into good theatre.” Much of this was due to his first great play, “Six Characters In Search of an Author.” However, throughout his career, the Palermo, Italy, native wrote work after work examining the concept of identity. In one of his last great plays, “As You Desire Me,” written in 1929, a strange woman, Zara, without an identity or a memory, is brought home to a place she may once have dominated as Maria, the wife of a great man. He has found her, or her replica, in a very different situation singing in a cheap, Berlin cabaret, the mistress of a conman, and wants to recreate her as he remembers her. The constant switching of her image, self-image and self made for great drama.
Earlier in his career, he wrote of another woman, Ersilia Drei, whose last name is German for “three,” in the play that is now on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in a new version by Nicholas Wright. Three is an important word in this play, for Ersilia has three men who pursue her and three personalities for dealing with them. In addition there are three other characters who react to her in ways that support one or more of the personas she displays in the course of this one hour and 45 minute two-act play.
Tara Franklin plays Ersilia, in one of her truly finest performances. The plotted schizophrenic Ersilia is the object of desire for three very different men, a soldier who throws away a career and a fiancée, a diplomat whose wife has gone nearly mad over the death of their daughter at Ersilia’s hands, and an intellectual novelist who is bent on rescuing her for her own good. The soldier, who has believed her downfall was his own doing, is played by James Barry; the diplomat is portrayed by Jeffrey Doornbos; the novelist is in the talented hands of Rocco Sisto. The landlady of the author is given life by Barbara Sims; her maid is played by Haley Aguerro; David Adkins plays the odd-man-out, Alfredo Cantavalle.
Sims is wonderful as Signora Onoria, the landlady who seems to feel that access to her tenant’s apartment is mandatory and credible. She is commanding in this role, declaring her opinions as though they were hard facts (a signal bow to our own congress members and senators) and making rules that cannot be abided by real people (hello, Supreme Court justices). She has a wonderful voice and physical presence and truly shines in the role of building spy and neighborhood busybody.
As her maid, Emma, newcomer Haley Aguerro gives a credible performance, particularly as she declares the comings and going of Ersilia and her men. David Adkins is incapable of a bad performance and, in this short appearance, is a voice of semi-reason and a clear indicator of place and time, more Italian than anyone has a right to be, and delicately supportive of both the leading lady and the man who has rescued her from near death. But good as these three are in the play, they are not of as much concern as the three men.
Sisto and Barry are excellent sparring partners as they threaten one another over Franklin’s Ersilia. Sisto thrusts with the assurance of the righteous, tainted by the lissomness of the scammer. Barry parries with the strength of youth harbored in the good arm of the soiled soul. Together they struggle for the body of the woman without either of them declaring that goal, made so obvious by the director Eric Hill, whose vision is apparent in this duel.
Just when we think there are two very different men caught in the thrall of this mysterious woman, a third appears and his presence creates the greatest single alteration in her demeanor. Consul Grotti, played with strong, sensual commitment by Jeffrey Doornbos, has an effect on Ersilia that no one else has. He alters her self-absorption and sadness into panther extremes. She becomes a cat with claws—and sharp ones, at that—at his touch. Doornbos makes the love scene between them almost obscene and yet he maintains restraint in both actions and words. He never loses his composure, even when she is at her worst with him. Torn between disgust and hot-blooded lust for the woman who has destroyed his family and his world, Gotti is about the calmest, most resigned man imaginable. Doornbos makes this dichotomy in reality seem all too reasonable and almost reassuring. It’s a crazy role played in a hazy way that keeps us interested in him, though almost repulsed by his snakelike movements at the same time.
Rocco Sisto is utterly believable as the novelist (shall we say a Pirandello of sorts) who has rescued this woman from her failed suicide, taken her from the hospital and offered her his modest lodgings in which to recover. He is fascinated with her story—seeing the fiction potential contained there—and has modestly fallen in love with her. His Ludovico Nota is charming, almost smarmily so, and very compelling at times as he stands by his belief in her latent finer qualities. Sisto kinows how to play roles like this and he handles Nota with tongs, always putting the character out front a step or two and never playing to a reticent moment. In a character whose delicate talents need inspiration to sustain him, Sisto finds the soft side of his man and sallies forth with it, even in moments of anger. This actor never betrays the character he has found to play, and that is wonderful to watch.
However, the acting triumphs here belong to James Barry and Tara Franklin. As the play’s central couple, his mania is driven by her manipulations. Their scenes together are dynamite lit but not yet exploded. You can feel the heat between them at all times. You can hear the sincerity in their worship and defilement. He is the altar on which she sacrifices herself and he is the high priest contemptuous of his sacrificial lamb yet lusting for her blood. There is real excitement in their playing together.
The set by Randall Parsons is wonderful and includes a Georg Grosz-like exterior scene, which puts the play into the proper time period and place. Yashi Tanokura’s costumes are pure period and define each of the characters perfectly. Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting design is atmospheric and time-of-day perfect. Franklin’s makeup helps her display the disintegration of her moral character. J Hagenbuckle’s sound design may take some time to perfect, but the ideas are right and, as the show plays, soundboard operator Allison Hannon should get the timing right.
Eric Hill’s work as a director has never seemed to so perfect before. It is as though this play were his own creation rather than that of an author, for every one of his choices sizzles with perfection. I am one of those people who finds the elevated language of the early 20th-century playwrights to be without flaw. Theater is heightened life, so why shouldn’t the formalities of familiarity be overlooked? Pirandello’s people are never ordinary and never sound ordinary and, in this new version, they are just right for my taste.Some people might not like that, but I say give it a chance and see how you feel at the end. You are drawn into other people’s worlds here. You should be. And now.
Nakedplays in the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus, 6 East St., Stockbridge, through Sunday, Oct. 28. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org or call the box office at (413) 997-4444.