When Luigi Pirandello, the self-described "son of chaos," died in 1936, he left to posterity a draft of his final play and an outline for its completion, which he whispered into his son's ear from his deathbed. Part hallucinatory vision, part confession, and part turgid manifesto, the planned play was in fragmentary form when Pirandello abandoned it. Since then, The Mountain Giants has popped up periodically to confound and bemuse unsuspecting theatergoers. In 1995 celebrated Italian director Giorgio Strehler staged the play as Pirandello left it, with a pantomimed act tacked on. The production stayed in New York just long enough for critics to condemn it as bloated and pretentious tripe. Here in Minneapolis, director Greg Smucker and the always audacious 15 Head Theatre Lab are producing a new adaptation of The Mountain Giants by British playwright Charles Wood. If they fail to make any more sense of Pirandello's ultimate apocalyptic vision than those who have come before, they do fail beautifully.
Like Pirandello's best-known work, Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Mountain Giants uses a play within a play as its central metaphor. In this case, an indigent theater troupe led by Countess Ilse (Jaidee Forman) is searching in vain for an audience to witness their play, "The Changeling Prince" (which is also one of Pirandello's early pieces). As The Mountain Giants commences, the bedraggled actors stumble toward a remote mountain villa, denoted in Joe Stanley's set design by a shifting mahogany bulwark adorned with umbrellas and blank masks. Upon their arrival, the villa denizens slip quietly through gaps in the wall. They are the Scalognati ("rejected ones" or "outcasts" in Italian), a motley crew of freaks led by the magician Cortrone (Jon Micheels Leiseth).
The Scalognati, as imagined by Stanley and costume designer Mary Anna Culligan, are like the spectral revenants of a Tim Burton nightmare. Cortrone wears platform heels that would make him a shoe-in for Pimp of the Year and a puffy white wig that gives him the appearance of a fabulously elongated version of David Bowie. Constantly at his elevated feet is Quaqueo "the dwarf" (Kat Beaudorf), who twitches and shudders like a non-equity actor after her 10,000th performance of Cats. Duccio Doccia (Craig Michael) bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. And the old woman, La Sgricia (Jodi Kellogg), is a cross between a hunchback and a witch, with long metallic fingernails and a wizened face that seems to protrude directly from her stomach. Next to this crowd, Ilse's faded finery looks downright pedestrian.
The visual dissonance between the two groups aptly underscores Pirandello's initial theme. Cortrone and his crew have given up the world to cloister themselves in the villa and make art for their own enjoyment. Ilse and the actors, on the other hand, are positivists; they are worn and beaten, but obsessed with bringing truth to the masses. Cortrone first offers the actors sanctuary. "Of the necessities of life, we have none," he tells them. "Of everything else, we have more than we need." For Ilse and company, though, art cannot live without an audience. They whine and rant until Cortrone arranges a performance for the titular giants, a race of brawny burghers residing in the nearby hills.
Aside from some arid rhetoric about life and theater, the play's first half surrenders to stage chicanery. Walls shake and spin, mauve light appears in corners of the theater, and puppets spring to life. In the act's best scene, La Sgricia relates a mystical vision of God's army thundering across the plains. As always, Kellogg imbues her character with complex passion, evoking a combination of revulsion and empathy. As she finishes her shrill monologue, an enormous red puppet materializes from the darkness behind her. We're left to wonder whether we can discount her rambling as the delusions of a madwoman, or whether there is indeed some malignant deity playing her strings from the shadows.
The puppet leitmotif is central to Pirandello's philosophy. As in Six Characters, he argues that identity is essentially fluid--a story constructed by forces beyond the will of the individual. We are all characters in search of our author. In a later scene, two of the thespians, Lumanchi (Michael Lee) and Battaglia (Anna Sommer), wake up outside of their corporeal selves. As they wander the halls of the sleeping villa, apparently inanimate rag dolls stumble to life and waltz with them. It is as though, in Pirandello's netherworld, the wall that separates the conscious self from the imagination has been rendered permanently porous.
The second half of The Mountain Giants is considerably less wondrous and, indeed, rather troubling. The scene shifts to a theater, where Ilse's troupe is preparing to perform for a rumbling mob of Neanderthals hidden from our view by a curtain. We are clearly meant to identify with the actors; the barbarians are outside the gate, and we, the cognoscenti, are safe within. We should remember, however, that Pirandello was also a supporter of Italian fascism (the man on the mountain is, after all, a pervasive trope of fascist art). In some stagings, the giants beyond the curtain are made to represent Il Duce and his henchmen. The whole play thus takes on the aura of a deathbed conversion, with Pirandello renouncing his fascist leanings.
In 15 Head's production, the giants represent the unconscious, unwashed mass of humanity. They cannot grasp Ilse's art, so they destroy it by literally tearing her apart. The actor's martyrdom is a metaphorical correlative to a Christian being thrown to the lions and dying for the one true faith--in this case, the tenet that art is and must be political. We might forgive such egotism and self-pity in a dying man, but what do we make of Pirandello's repugnant elitism? As the beaten and shamed actors carry Ilse's bloodied body messiahlike from the stage, Cortrone returns to chide "the arrogant slaves to art" who "exclude [them]selves from life at [their] peril." What do we make of any of it? Despite their best efforts, 15 Head leave The Mountain Giants much as they found it: a play in search of meaning.
The Mountain Giants runs through May 15 at Red Eye Theatre; (651) 306-2207.