Spine: Ontologically Speaking (Perhaps) Absolutely!

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In Luigi Pirandelo’s most famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, the frustrated theatrical director demands that the father of the wandering character-clan stop his endless theorizing and get down to the business of creating the play: “Drama is action, sir, action and not confounded philosophy.”

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.

Philosophizing is, ironically, Pirandelo’s obsession: philosophy of the ontological kind: the nature of being, of identity, of truth itself. Ah, his was the age of such high-minded mental gymnastics, and his genius was his ability to create a dramatic metaphor that was not only appropriate to his idea but entertaining to an audience.

Constellation Theatre Company, safely ensconced in Cultural DC’s Source Theatre (It is really [perhaps]) tackles a different script from the famous playwright: “Right You Are (If You Think You Are)” or rather Absolutely! (Perhaps), a 2003 adaptation of the Italian’s text, now set in a hip Electric Kool-Aid 1960s. For DCMetroTheatreArts review of the production click here.

As Pirandelo’s first play, this comedy (perhaps) shares a good deal of the “confounded” philosophy that its more popular relative purports: the existential dissolve that turns Truth with a capital “T” into so many existential yearnings after certainty, a certainty that the latter Existentialists left as so many small “t” truths, hidden only by the myths we mortals necessarily fabricate.

What’s different about this Absolutely! (Perhaps) is the delightful way in which the playwright explores the quivering nature of existential reality, a delight that is only heightened by Martin Sherman’s translation. Through this set of Pirandelo/Sherman bifocals that most modern of phenomena–the gossip column, or the rumor mill, or the celebrity rag, or the contemporary theatre (perhaps)–becomes the metaphor that turns the idea of family into an early 20th century quantum Who’s on First and What’s on Second (Perhaps).

To be sure, Pirandelo loves the theatrical paradox: the theatre is art of the highest kind, it is a serious business, and it needs to pursue the essence of reality. Theatre also needs to participate in the great issues of the day.

Yet, theatre is all entertainment, a social event to which the wife can bring her husband or the boy can bring his would-be girlfriend. No downers here beyond this fourth wall.

And that is what makes Absolutely! (Perhaps) such a wondrous conundrum.

On the one hand, Absolutely is all fun and games, led by the tricksterish Lamberto Laudisi (performed marvelously by Ashley Ivey by the way). Lamberto is not, however, simply a character in a play: he’s intermediary between a town in a sensational uproar over the mysterious relationship among a husband and a wife, and her mother (perhaps) and an audience (that’s us) stuck uneasily between wanting, like the townsfolk, to know what this mystery is all about and Lamberto who councils us to forget the mystery and move on. Irony of ironies, if we follow Lamberto’s advise we suddenly lose interest in the play, except (perhaps) as a game of make believe, and move on to after theatre drinks and snacks.

On the other hand, at the devilish core of this mystery of Signor and Signora Ponza is a profound tragedy: a South American earthquake that devastated a town, killing all of the Ponza’s extended family. Hence, we have that clouding of identity and the vacuum into which the townsfolk are hysterically sucked. With all of history lost under a pile of rubble, we are free to construct whatever identities we wish.

The tension between a play that is as light as air, and as esoteric as philosophy about the nature truth and being, and a story that has such profound suffering at its blackhole core can at times be truly disconcerting. One is left to wonder (perhaps): does Pirandelo’s point have more to do with why we pursue our obsession with gossip and scandal, even in the face of tragedies of such enormous gravity, than with the obsession itself. “For God’s sake,” I imagined someone saying, “Leave the woman alone. She’s lost her entire family to an earthquake!”

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

But no, even horror such as that does not stop the truth-train from attempting to reach its destiny.

In a play that relies so much on the pursuit of truth, even in the face of an existential nothingness swallowing us at pursuit’s end, I won’t dare give away the climax. Instead, I’ll rely on Winston Churchill’s famous paraphrased comment about Russian national interests: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

If all the world’s a stage (perhaps), and all these men and women merely players (perhaps), then in Absolutely! (Perhaps) the world within the world is a stage within a stage, and players within players within us all. Check the person next to you. Pull their wig off (or not), but most definitely don’t trust anything you see or hear, be it neighbor, foreigner, or government bureaucrat.

Leave it to Constellation Theatre to bring Washington this rarely performed gem of inscrutability. The young company and its artistic director, Allison Arkell Stockman, have made a name for themselves performing plays with high concept and challenging make-believes; such stretches are never easy, or a sure thing, even for the veteran pretenders out there.

With Absolutely! (Perhaps) Constellation and Ms. Stockman have most definitely reached their stride, however, and its ensemble of talent will take you on one hell of a magical mystery tour. You will leave the theatre delightfully certain that there is nothing certain about anything, be it delightful or horrific, and that play you’ve just laughed through is the most uncertain thing of all.

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.

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Read Michael Poandl’s review of ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} on DCMetroTheaterArts.