Is ‘Absolutely! {Perhaps}’ a weird play? Absolutely. (Perhaps)

Is ‘Absolutely! {Perhaps}’ a weird play? Absolutely. (Perhaps)

Constellation Pirandello cast pix.
Constellation's Pirandello cast: Julia Klavans, Ashley Ivey, Sarah Pretz, Matt Dewberry, Catherine Deadman, Connor J. Hogan, Teresa Spencer. (Credit: Stan Barouh)

WASHINGTON, October 14, 2014 – Constellation Theatre Company opened its 2014-2015 regular season this weekend past with a new production of Luigi Pirandello’s 1917 drama “Cosi e (se vi pare).” Roughly translated from the Italian as “Right you are (if you think so),” the play is based on an earlier novel by the author.

Now at Constellation’s home at the Source through November 9, the Italian original was adapted and freshened for the British stage just after the turn of this century by playwright Martin Sherman. He gave it a spiffy new title and handed it off to Franco Zeffirelli who directed a brash, showy new production that opened to acclaim (and some controversy) in London in 2003.

Pirandello’s early excursion into what eventually became known as “theater of the absurd” is a farcical, fun, obsessional fusillade of half-truths, one-liners, faux profundities and outright lies loudly proclaimed early and often by a self-important entourage of ignorant blowhards. The frantic action and interaction among the characters is absolutely pointless. Just like Washington life in 2014 America.

Constellation’s staging catches your attention immediately as you enter the Source’s black box space, which has been elaborately transformed by set designer A.J. Guban into an almost-too-faithful replica of a bi-level Danish Modern/Atomic Age American living room. Constellation describes the set as dating from the “Mad Men” era, but we’d place it circa 1955-1958 or so.

Against an abstract wall festooned by interlocking, burnished silver squares, colorful, severely abstract couches and chairs sprawl out into a comfortable if severe yet oddly inviting array.

Directly in front of the wall, the room’s upper tier is dominated by an elaborate and frequently used bar as well as a boxy, classic 1950s “stereo” record player/radio combination.

Overhead, the shiny, dual tier ceiling alternates black and metallic silver which, taken together with its downlighting, seems a whimsical homage to the otherworldly architecture of Sputnik I.

In the main, the play’s female characters are dressed by costume designer Kendra Rai in flouncy, flared, garden-party dresses, prominent hats and proper pastel pumps, while the gents are nattily attired in Very Important But Likely Empty Business Suits.

The entire scenario is so visually perfect in a Vogue Magazine sort of way that we immediately suspect something is not right in this tight little world. As indeed it is not.

Who is the mysterious Signora Frola, really? (Credit: Stan Barouh)
Who is the mysterious Signora Frola (Kimberly Schraf), really? (Credit: Stan Barouh)

The plot of the play, such as it is, involves the attempt—no, the obsession—by two prominent small town families—the Agazzis and the Sirellis—to get to the bottom of some weird goings-on, involving a trio of new residents who’ve settled in this tight-knit community. It’s a mystery, however, that arguably is not any of their business.

The mystery revolves around the ambiguous relationship between Signor Ponza (Michael Glenn) and his wife (Lizzi Albert) and, in turn, their relationship with Signor Ponza’s mother-in-law, Signora Frola (Kimberly Schraf). Signora Frola, for some reason, is never permitted to see her daughter, who remains shut up in Signor Ponza’s flat. At the same time, Signor Ponza is seen frequently visiting his mother-in-law on his own.

What’s going on here? The apparent scandal is driving Councillor Agazzi (Toby Mulford), his wife Amalia (Sarah Pretz), and their grown daughter Dina (Julia Klavans) bonkers, particularly since Agazzi employs Signor Ponza as his clerk.

While visiting the Agazzis, the Sirellis—Matt Dewberry and Catherine Deadman—and their friend (Teresa Spencer), confess they’re caught up in the spreading gossip as well.

Meanwhile, strolling casually but prominently in the background, Amalia’s brother, the outrageously self-assured and cynical Lamberto (Ashley Ivey) makes light of both families’ obsession with the Ponzas and insists they’ll never discover the real truth behind what they’re seeing.

After the Agazzis, the Sirellis and company essentially turn into a six-person tag team of inquisitors, grilling Signor Ponza and Signora Frola again and again, peppering them with questions as they try to discover the truth. We won’t reveal the solution to the mystery, save to quote the favorite pronouncement of Hugh Laurie’s cynical TV Dr. Gregory House: “Everybody always lies.”

As directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation’s current production of “Absolutely! {Perhaps}” is at times a bit too fast and furious, operating at a decibel level that could be adjusted down a notch. But the play gradually becomes compelling largely due to the phenomenal creativity of a first-rate cast that takes the material for what it is and somehow manages to craft believable people out of Pirandello’s two-dimensional caricatures.

Signor Ponza & Co.
Signor Ponza tells all, more or less. L-R: Ashley Ivey, Michael Glenn (Signor Ponza);
(back row) Toby Mulford, Julia Klavans, Sarah Pretz
(front row) Matt Dewberry, Catherine Deadman, Teresa Spencer. (Credit: Stan Barouh)

From the pompous bluster of Matt Dewberry’s Signor Sirelli to the sly facial expressions and Mr. Spock eyebrows of Sarah Pretz’ Amalia Agazzi, this is a cast that’s carefully keeps this production from descending into parody.

Of particular note is Michael Glenn’s brilliantly bi-polar characterization of Signor Ponza who at times seems the most reasonable character on stage—before erupting in Vesuvian outbursts of insanity.

Kudos as well to Ashley Ivey. His foppish, all-knowing Uncle Lamberto is at times a bit too Oscar Wilde. But, as Pirandello’s representative in this play, his eternally skeptical character attempts to impose some reason on his relatives and associates. Ivey, and his character serve as the playwright’s stand-ins for what’s left of reason and proportion in the modern world.

Ashley Ivey's over-the-top Uncle Lamberto. (Credit: Stan Barouh)
Ashley Ivey’s over-the-top Uncle Lamberto. (Credit: Stan Barouh)

Lamberto seems to understand that “truth,” in the end, is likely to be whatever people think it to be. As a result, he discounts everything he hears, most of which he finds laughably wrong. Ivey wraps himself around the paradox and serves as the audience’s bizarre yet often wise guide through the play’s complex and inconclusive conclusions.

We confess that it took us many years to appreciate the contemporary, largely absurdist plays of playwrights like Pirandello, Ionesco and in particular Samuel Beckett. Populated by pointless, almost cartoonish characters of apparently little intelligence who run on brains seemingly pre-programmed into a tangle of endless do-loops and driven by minimalist, nearly vapid plots that rarely resolve into a satisfactory conclusion, such plays on one hand seem to be a waste of time even though they can be awfully funny.

That said, the older we get, the more this kind of senseless nonsense seems to make sense. These plays tend to be about individuals whose empty lives seem increasingly useless and devoid of meaning. They inhabit a world where hours, days, weeks, months and years are devoted to pursuing ephemeral matters that fail to advance either themselves or humankind.

We could say the characters in absurdist drama lead lives of quiet desperation, except that they no longer seem to grasp precisely what that is. They have either become or have allowed themselves to become mere cogs in a world that’s out of their control and that long ago passed them by.

Plays like this one, while they can entertain, are actually meant to provoke. We can condemn the Agazzis and Sirellis for devoting inordinate amounts of their time to discovering the personal secrets of their troubled neighbors—secrets that are none of either family’s business. Since Signor Agazzi is part of the local government, we can also condemn him for wasting time on trivia rather than dealing with the town’s more pressing issues.

But if you fast-forward to 2014, these vapid, useless people become ominous, almost frightening. They could actually be us as we waste time and money on everything from cable TV “reality shows” to sports teams that never win a title, to politicians who never under any circumstances deliver on their promises, to a Federal government that willfully passes legislation the majority of Americans don’t want, to a President who plays endless rounds of golf while the world around him burns.

The absurdist dramatists in many ways had begun to give up on humankind, fearing that the world was fast-descending into a meaningless state of social entropy and depersonalization, lacking in either intellect or meaning. If we look around us today, we would have to conclude that the funny but sad dramatic prophecies of the absurdists have come true. The question that remains—can we dig out of this mess in time?

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Constellation Theatre’s new production of Martin Sherman’s adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s “Absolutely! {Perhaps}” continues at the Source through November 9. The address: 1835 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. The theater is two blocks from the U St./Cardozo Metro station. On-street parking available nearby but it can be tricky and subject to local restrictions.

Tickets: $20-45.

Information: For tickets and information, visit the Constellation Theatre website or call 202-204-7741.

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