Stage Door Review
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
by Luigi Pirandello, adapted and directed by Douglas Beattie
Pie in the Sky Productions, private home on Delamere Avenue, Stratford
September 6-8, 2019
Andrea: “Che s'aggirasse intorno alla colpa di lei, stringendola in cerchi più sottili, sempre più sottili...”
Those lucky enough to have seen Pie in the Sky Productions’ The Vise will have found it (excuse the pun) absolutely gripping. The Vise (original title, La morsa) is the first play by Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936), most famous for his Six Characters in Search of an Author of 1921. Pie in the Sky describes The Vise as a “suspense thriller” and that is exactly what it is. Yet even in this early play we can see the themes of game-playing and the blending of illusion and reality that Pirandello will explore more deeply in his later work. While director and adaptor Douglas Beattie gives his site-specific version of the play a new twist, it is not necessary for the play’s success. Rather Beattie’s incisive direction and exemplary acting of the cast enhanced by the immersive nature of the production demonstrate that this 109 year-old one-act play has lost none of its power.
Pirandello’s original play is set in the house of the businessman Andrea Fabbri somewhere in the country. When the play opens Andrea’s wife Giulia and his lawyer and best friend Antonio are filled with fear that Andrea saw them kissing and thus has discovered they are having an affair. Antonio has returned early from a business trip he took with Andrea to tell Giulia that if Andrea knows about them he gave no sign of it during the trip. After Antonio departs and after Andrea arrives, we look for any indication that will tell us whether Andrea does or does not know about his wife and Antonio.
Beattie’s adaption moves the action from the “oggi” (“today”) that Pirandello specifies to our own present and includes the clever use of cell phones and of arrivals by car. Andrea’s house is in Los Angeles and Andrea is in the movie business. Andrea and the lawyer have gone to New York to sign a big star to the latest movie that Andrea is producing.
The major change Beattie has made is to make Andrea, now called Drea, female and to make Giulia, now called Joseph, male. Antonio, now simply Tony, remains male. (Beattie eliminates the role of Anna the maid.) The question is what the play gains by featuring an adulterous homosexual rather than heterosexual affair.
On the one hand, the plot of the play does not need a change in the orientation of the lovers to be successful. Several recent revivals have left Pirandello’s characters as he wrote them. On the other hand, the change of genders makes the play feel much more modern. A married woman with a lover is second only to a married man with a lover as a familiar trope in literature. No play from 1910 would feature a gay couple. E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice was written in 1913-14, but he felt it unpublishable at the time and it was not published until 1971. The first film to depict gay men in a positive light was the German film Anders als den Andern (“Different Than the Others”) from 1919 in the brief period of liberalism during the Weimar Republic.
Changing Giulia to Joseph does make the gravity of various plot points easier for a modern audience to appreciate. It makes the lovers guilty not merely guilty of adultery but of an attraction that is still not universally accepted. For the same reason it also gives more force to Joseph’s plea to Drea that she not tell their children about the affair.
Beattie’s production is notable for its exceptionally imaginative use of its site-specific location in a private home in Stratford. Beattie’s theatre company had previously presented a site-specific Pirandello one-acter, Masquerade (Cecè in the original) in 2016 in a suite at Bentley’s Inn in downtown Stratford. The Vise, in many ways, feels like the second half a Pirandello double bill that has simply had quite a long intermission between the acts.
Beattie has staged the action primarily in the living-room of a house where there are 16 seats for the audience, and in the front hallway to the house separated from the living-room by a proscenium-like rectangular archway. The stairway to the second floor on the other side of the hallway could not be more fortunately located for the play’s dramatic needs. Besides this, Beattie has two of the characters, Tony and Drea, arrive by car and pull into the house’s driveway which means that the headlights dramatically shine through the front window and play across one wall before the car stops. This physical situation adds immeasurable tension to Drea’s arrival even before she says a word.
As usual under Beattie direction, the actors give natural, minutely detailed performances – even more necessary since they act only inches away from the audience. Just as Pirandello’s original focusses on the character of Giulia, Beattie’s adaption focusses on Joseph. Before he says a word, Joseph’s love for his children is shown through the children’s toys that lie near him and in the drawing he is working on when Tony appears.
Jesse Dwyre gives a powerful performance ranging from hope that Tony is mistaken about Drea’s knowledge to fear to thoughts of revenge to despair. Perhaps most forceful is Dwyre’s portrayal of the extreme shame he feels for having betrayed Drea and his related fear that she will tell his children about him.
As Drea, Ramona Milano, whom Pirandello gives an agonizingly late entrance, presents a portrait of inscrutability. For a long, tense period right after her entrance while we wonder “Does she know or not?”, Milano gives us absolutely no hint about the answer. She plays Drea at first as both cool and collegial toward Joseph which sets us on edge as well as conveying an underlying vigorousness that makes us suspicious.
Paul Hopkins has the measure of Tony, whom Pirandello suggests is the weakest of the trio. Hopkins shows this weakness in how Tony frantically veers from trying to convince himself and Joseph that Drea knows nothing about them to fear that she knows everything. Tony doesn’t seem to realize that his breaking off his business trip a day early to warn Joseph was likely the clearest proof Drea needed to link them as a couple.
Though The Vise is primarily a tight thriller with its melodramatic tendencies kept under strict control, this early play already shows evidence of the direction that Pirandello will take later on. Drea’s first scene with Joseph is a miniature masterpiece of mental game-playing where we, like Jospeh, are anxiously guessing what Drea knows and whether her words or actions will reveal her thoughts. This, in itself, already shows that Pirandello is moving away from the then dominant dramatic style of Naturalism, where people’s lives are determined by their backgrounds, to his own style of psychological existentialism, where it becomes impossible for one individual ever to know fully what another individual thinks or feels.
The most deliciously Pirandellian moment in the play comes when the metaphor of the vise is most clearly evoked. Drea tells Joseph what a man she met in New York told her in response to her question of how a person should punish a spouse who betrayed them. In the original she relates the man’s words, “Che s'aggirasse intorno alla colpa di lei, stringendola in cerchi più sottili, sempre più sottili...” (“That he would stroll around her guilt, squeezing her into increasingly tighter circles, increasingly tighter...”). Here Drea’s narration of another’s narration brings into reality the theoretical action described except in direct relation to Joseph. Thus what was a fiction becomes a reality.
Stratford has become a centre for creative people beyond those associated with the Festival. A company like Pie in the Sky adds to the theatrical richness of the town by exploring dramatic treasures beyond the purview of the Festival (although The Vise running at only an hour would make an excellent lunch-time show at the Shaw Festival). The excellence of Douglas Bettie’s productions make one anxious to see what new gem he will bring to light next.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: Ramona Milano as Drea and Jesse Dwyre as Joseph; Jesse Dwyre as Joseph and Paul Hopkins as Tony; Ramona Milano as Drea and Jesse Dwyre as Joseph. © 2019 Deb Erb.