SAN DIEGO — Hamlet. Cinderella. Jane Eyre. Mr. Micawber. When storytelling is at its finest, we say that the characters step off the stage into a reality of their own. Writers as modern as Woody Allen have taken that expression and extended it into a world of characters who can do just that, as in the movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo," in which a handsome film hero actually steps off the screen to romance an adoring fan.
It was Luigi Pirandello, however, who first and most completely articulated the inherent conflicts between art and reality in all their glorious and stimulating complexities. The Marquis Theatre production of "Six Characters in Search of an Author," now playing through March 6, provides a welcome opportunity to explore the Nobel prize-winning playwright's alternately funny, touching and most human manifestation of philosophical arguments that cut to the bone.
The brilliance of Pirandello's thought is enhanced by its contrast to the deceptively simple structure of the story. The play opens with a theater troupe rehearsing some obscure Pirandello play which they neither like nor understand, only to be interrupted by six arrivals who announce themselves as characters in search of an author.
Puzzled and annoyed, the troupe tells the "characters"--a husband, wife and four children from two different unions--to go away, but they refuse, insisting that they have been partly created by an author who discarded them and that they want the director and actors to finish their story, which, like Coleridge's ancient mariner, they feel compelled to tell over and over.
In the course of the drama (in which the characters, like different facets on a prism, argue among themselves about their versions of the story, even as they act out scenes of it for the troupe), Pirandello reveals the passion in the characters (the artistic concept) that is unmatched by the actors (the execution of the same).
Not only can't the actors capture even a fraction of the urgency with which the characters portrayed their story, the characters--with some justice--belittle the transient and fleeting reality of the actors whom, they argue, are no match for the pure and fixed intensity of their own lives as immortal art.
Under Minerva Marquis' careful direction, the play is substantially pruned down, but not to ill effect. While the cast is by and large green, the actors keep the show going, hitting their marks and getting the points across, though too rarely with sparkle; they lack the precision and skills that would take a high polish.
Still, often they seem to rise to the level of the material--particularly Helen Reed Lehman as the tormented mother and Quentin Michael Proulx as the withdrawn son. D. Joseph Dietz is solid if uninspired as the father while Monic Guevera, a second-grader at Rice Elementary in Chula Vista, is as touching as the frightened little girl as Daniel S. Polese is as the tormented boy. But it is in a category all her own that Patty Sipes burns, walking on a rope of fire as the passionate and scornful daughter.
The set, nicely designed by Ellery J. Brown, uses a series of slanted parallel wires like a force field to separate the characters' world of art from the actors' world of reality in the play within a play within a play. The costumes and the lights enhance the differences between the two worlds, casting most of the characters in stark black garments and dramatic pallor while the actors relax in jeans and warm lights.
There is a scene near the end in which the characters try to conjure up a missing member of their group by arranging a hat shop like that character used to run, in much the same spirit that people once appealed to the gods with the correct blend of ceremony and burnt offerings. That moment stands as a telling demonstration of how important the atmosphere is in conjuring up the magic of authentic theatrical visitations from the muse. It is an atmosphere that has been worked on with diligence by the Marquis--and, in this production, quite often to good effect.
Performances are at the Marquis Public Theatre, 3717 India St., at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 6.
SAN DIEGO--The problem with crackerjack, madcap comedies like "The Foreigner" is not that they're the candy lifesavers of the theater--delightfully sweet and hollow at the center. It is that inexperienced theater groups smell the jokes and think "crowd pleaser" without considering whether they can pull out the virtuoso performances necessary to make elaborate comedic dances shimmer.