A woman gets stripped to her psychic skin in Naked | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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A woman gets stripped to her psychic skin in Naked

Trap Door Theatre’s revival of the Pirandello play is farcical, soapy, and profound.

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Thanks to set designer Nick Schwartz, a good portion of the audience has to watch the Trap Door Theatre revival of Luigi Pirandello's Naked unfold through casement windows placed right in their line of sight, over the downstage lip of the performing area. Since each window is composed of eight small panes, any given moment of the play may be broken up into 16 separate squares.

What an awful way to spend 90 minutes, you might suppose before the thing begins. Like trying to watch somebody else's TV from a spot on their front lawn.

But it turns out to be a rather brilliant gesture, because Pirandello's canny 1922 tragicomedy deals with the multiple narratives, the separate little panes of perception, through which various people view a former governess named Ersilia Drei who tried and failed to commit suicide.

The known facts at the beginning of the 90 minutes are these: Ersilia worked in the household of Grotti, the Italian consul stationed in Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey), tending to his small child until said child fell from a terrace and died. From there she drifted off to Rome, where she obtained some vials of poison and downed one of them in a park. The dose wasn't enough to kill her but sure seemed like it would at the time. Certain she was on her deathbed, Ersilia confessed to a newspaper reporter, Cantavalle, that she'd been jilted by Laspiga, a young naval officer who'd promised to marry her. It being a slow news day, Cantavalle wrote up her tale of a broken heart, naming the people involved. The article went viral in a first-quarter-of-the-20th-century sense, turning Ersilia into a minor, if reluctant, celebrity. An object of interest, anyway. Her story reached Ludovico Nota, an aging novelist, who got in touch with her, offering to put her up at his apartment until she got on her feet again—and, by the way, until he could get a handle on how to turn her into his next book.

When we first meet Ersilia, she's just arrived at Nota's apartment, delighted to the point of shame at her sudden turn of fortune. Soon enough, though, her snug hideaway turns into Grand Central Station. Not only does Nota (Bob Wilson) start brainstorming Ersilia the fiction, but others show up to impose their own narratives on her. Feeling tortured, Laspiga the naval officer (Ambrose Cappuccio) insists on doing the noble thing and marrying her. (Part of her reply to him—"You'd condemn me to be the very person I tried to kill"—is one of the more compelling notions in the play.) Cantavalle the reporter (Keith Surney) returns for more. And Grotti the consul (Darren Hill) appears, to dredge up some memories Ersilia would much rather forget. Even Nota's landlady, Mrs. Onoria, gets in her licks, going from high dudgeon when she thinks Nota's moved a common slut into his apartment to simpering graciousness when she learns that the slut is none other than the noteworthy woman from the newspaper story.

In the course of these interactions, Ersilia is alternately stripped of her privacy—that which she hopes to hold secret to maintain a livable illusion—and wrapped up in the agendas of the people around her. A near cousin of Pirandello's more famous Six Characters in Search of an Author, but without the metatheatrical flourishes, Naked offers a witty, farcical, occasionally soapy, yet ultimately profound investigation into how much we depend on our stories for identity. In fact, how much we need a decent story to keep us alive.

There are obvious 21st-century parallels to be drawn from the piece. It can be read as a feminist document, for instance, in that four of the people attempting to make Ersilia over in their image are men, while two women who start out doing it end up rallying around her. And the analogy to questions of selfhood on the Internet (just think about the phrase "identity theft") is a no-brainer. It's precisely because the parallels are obvious, though, that director Kay Martinovich was wise to play the material straight and in period. The resonances are richer that way, and the potential for solemn self-righteousness much reduced.

It also helps that Martinovich has such a fierce Ersilia in Tiffany Bedwell, able to get both as fucked-up and as sympathetic as she needs to be. Meanwhile, Manuela Rentea is a hoot as Mrs. Onoria. Having seen Rentea distinguish herself in a small role before, I'd say she has a talent for quirky physical comedy that helps us understand a character as much as it entertains.   v

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