‘ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps}’ at Constellation Theatre Company

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One of my favorite movies of all time is Clue, a mystery comedy (based on the board game) starring Tim Curry that is chock full of over-the-top characters and zany, slapstick farce. As I laughed my way through Constellation Theatre’s delightful new staging of Luigi Pirandello’s ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} I couldn’t help thinking about the 1985 cult comedy that I have always had such affection for. Like all successful farces, ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} is fast paced, colorful, and cheesy in the best way. Director (and Artistic Director of Constellation Theatre Company) Allison Arkell Stockman moves her superb (and surprisingly large) cast like so many chess pieces around A.J. Guban’s brilliant set, as they breathlessly try to unearth the truth about their unconventional new neighbors. However, don’t be fooled by the Wilde-esque flimsiness of the whole affair; there is actually a serious philosophical discussion happening under the surface of ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps}, about privacy, morality, and the nature of truth itself.

Ashley Ivey, Michael Glenn (back row) Toby Mulford, Julia Klavans, Sarah Pretz (front row) Matt Dewberry, Catherine Deadman, and Teresa Spencer. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Ashley Ivey, Michael Glenn (back row) Toby Mulford, Julia Klavans, Sarah Pretz (front row) Matt Dewberry, Catherine Deadman, and Teresa Spencer. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Originally written by Luigi Pirandello (who is most famous for his 1921 metatheatrical masterpiece, Six Characters In Search of an Author) under the title Cosi e (se vi pare) (Right You Are, If You Think So) the play was adapted in 2003 by Martin Sherman. It is this much more accessible reworking of the text that Constellation presents. Although the original play was written almosty a century ago, some of the more egregious moments of gossip and speculation were cringe-inducing in their contemporary relevance. Sadly, such vicious chatter is as familiar in the present day as it was in turn-of-the-century Italy.

At issue in ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} is the family that has recently moved in to the unnamed small Italian country town that is the setting of the play. This family consists of Signor Ponza (played with dexterous intensity by Michael Glenn), his wife, Signiora Ponza (Lizzi Albert), and her mother, Signora Frola (the wonderful Kimberly Schraf). Shockingly, Mr. and Mrs. Ponza have moved in to a separate apartment from the mother-in-law. More than this, it is whispered that Signora Frola has never been to visit her daughter in person. Instead, she goes to the courtyard underneath her daughter’s balcony, and passes letters up to her via an intricate bucket-and-pulley system.

Of course, this is all simply too much for the town’s righteous and ravenously curious electorate, who are determined to find out for sure what is behind this social oddity. So, Councilllor Agazzi (Toby Mulford) and his wife, Amalia (Sarah Pretz), together with their friends, Signor and Signora Sirelli (Matt Dewberry and Catherine Deadman, both hilarious), their daughter, Dina (Julia Klavans), and another neighbor, Signora Cini (Teresa Spencer), who’s name no one can ever seem to remember, all gather in the Agazzi household to sip martinis and confront the object of their speculation. But alas, the truth becomes even more muddled, as first Signora Frola and then her alleged son-in-law, Signor Ponza, subsequently declare each other to be totally insane.

Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Kimberly Schraf. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Naturally, hijinks ensue. But it is here that another layer appears in ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps}. Because just as the busybody neighbors agonize over who is telling the truth, Signora Agazzi’s foppish brother, Lamberto (played with delicious gusto by Ashley Ivey) poses a broader question: How do any of us really know the truth about anyone? The person I see is not the person you see, and vice versa. With maddening Zen-like questions designed to provoke, Lamberto says to his friends and neighbors at various points that both Signora Frola and Signor Ponza must be telling the truth, that neither of them are telling the truth, there is no truth, or Signora Ponza is simply a ghost.

As much as I would like to distance myself from the shamelessly nosy neighbors in the show, the truth is that the audience quickly becomes just as invested in the small town scandal as they are. Director Allison Arkell Stockman imagines the setting in a 1960s Mod atmosphere, with a stunning Technicolor costume design by Kendra Rai, and an exquisite Mad Men set by A.J. Guban. The audience is imaginatively arranged on two sides of the space, and most of the staging takes place along a long vertical plane, making every seat a good one to see the action. The lighting design (also by A.J. Guban) is perfectly adequate, but only really gets a chance to shine during the last ten minutes of the show, when a surprising atmosphere of magical realism descends on the show, providing a resolution that is ambiguous, yet deeply satisfying.

In an age where Apple has to prove to its customers that all of our personal data won’t be vacuumed up by Big Brother, and where the tiniest personal details are shared to the world via social media, privacy has never been more relevant. Despite the all-too-human urge to know what is going on with everyone’s business at all times, ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} proposes a second way of thinking about the truth. If everyone is satisfied, and no one’s getting hurt, does it really matter what “the truth” is? And, is it even really possible to know the facts, when reality itself is as elusive as the Agazzi’s mirrored ceilings?

Running Time: Two hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission.

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ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} plays through November 9, 2014 at Constellation Theatre Company, performing at Source – 1835 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Fortickets, purchase them at the door or by calling the box office at (202) 204-7741, or online.

LINK
Spine: Ontologically Speaking (Perhaps) Absolutely! by Robert Michael Oliver on DCMetroTheaterArts.