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No One Knows How; Alphonse

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NO ONE KNOWS HOW

Gallery Theatre Company

ALPHONSE

at Chicago Historical Bookworks

"Innocent crimes" is the phrase Luigi Pirandello uses to describe the events in his play No One Knows How. Misdeeds, little murders, committed by impulse, in a dream state--sometimes in dreams only, though sometimes in material reality; sometimes quite deliberately, but with the best of intentions. If, say, a wife is unfaithful to her husband, which is the greater "crime": the infidelity, or to conceal it? Or to reveal it? And if the infidelity is only in the mind, is it less a crime than an infidelity physically consummated?

For Pirandello, these are not merely questions of marital ethics; they are the stuff of metaphysical contemplation. It is in such actions that the volatile unpredictability of human life, the mystery of existence, even the possible presence of God, is revealed. And we experience that revelation at our risk, for it can draw us into madness as we confront the existential questions that can make "normal" life impossible to return to.

To dramatize this philosophical exploration, Pirandello constructed in No One Knows How a captivating little domestic mystery. Giorgio, a straight-arrow naval officer, returns home on leave anxious to be with his wife Ginevra after their long separation. But he finds that his boyhood friend Romeo has apparently gone mad; the fellow wanders around speaking the most penetrating, mystifying mixture of truth and incoherent ramblings. It seems that what has unsettled Romeo is his suspicion that his wife Bice has slept with a family friend, Respi; but no one who knows Bice and her devotion to her husband can believe that possibility, or even that Romeo himself can believe it. Indeed, something much deeper is at play here--an "innocent crime" that Romeo himself has committed, which has, in turn, dredged up the long-suppressed memory of another crime, and which has forced Romeo to consider the possible criminality of all his friends. After all, if "it"--and what "it" is is the crux of the mystery--happened to him, it can happen to anyone. No one knows how--and no one knows how to repair the damage of this emotional earthquake that has wrecked Romeo's complacency and unleashed an epidemic of madness.

Taken on its surface, No One Knows How is the stuff of soap opera, laced with absurdist comedy; but within this framework Pirandello weaves an engrossing, passionately written web of conundrums: madness and sanity, reality and illusion, kindness and cruelty, culpability and innocence, love and hate, and finally life and death. He's also concerned with the differences between male and female--not only the sexual double standard, but the differences in nature that lead women and men to embrace different truths.

The Gallery Theatre's production of the play takes certain liberties with the text, liberties that have their virtues and their drawbacks. Many of the liberties stem, I think, from necessity. The play is presented in the Prism Gallery, a contemporary art outlet in Evanston, with the gallery's pristine white walls and paintings serving as the "set." (Most of the art looks pretty bad, which acts as an additional, though I'm sure unintended, ironic comment on the characters' bourgeois complacency.) The contemporary urban setting brings the play closer to us, but it takes Pirandello's text, so full of natural imagery, out of its potent original context (the script is set on an outdoor terrace at Giorgio's country villa).

Director Greg Allen does arrive at some strong visual images, especially in the third act; but he also indulges in self-conscious bits that undercut the believability of the domestic drama, from which the deeper meaning of the play emerges. For example, Romeo, the mad wise man, acknowledges and directly interacts with the audience, but the rest of the cast doesn't. Does this mean the other characters know that they are just actors on a stage but are too polite to say so, or that Romeo exists in a totally different reality? Other moments of banal comic shtick interfere with the emotion in ways that are counterproductive; and resorting to the final chords of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" at the climax merely robs the play of its mystery because of the music's overfamiliarity.

Similarly but more crucially, Allen's reliance on an almost callowly youthful cast both adds to and takes away from the play. These are not the mature couples Pirandello envisioned, cast morally adrift in mid-life, but near-children; it's like watching a sexual turf war in the lounges at Medusa's. Yet that gives the play an immediacy and contemporaneity that illustrate the continuing validity of Pirandello's theme; and the actors bring a vulnerability to the play's story that is very touching, though their creativity generally far exceeds their technical competence.

Robin MacDuffie, looking remarkably like Kier Dullea in David and Lisa, plays the addled truth-telling Romeo with an almost punky immaturity; he's way out of his depth with the amazing, hallucinatory monologues Pirandello has crafted, but he's compelling enough on his own terms as a man peering into an existential abyss. Tracy Gurtakowski and Carol Hellem as Ginevra and Bice play their scenes together a little like Joan Collins and Linda Evans in Dynasty, but Hellem rises above that in the wrenching third act, when Bice reveals the full and frightening dimensions of her devotion to Romeo. Randall K. Packer plays Respi as a suburbanite slob in garish shirt and bell-bottoms, hardly the marquis Pirandello had in mind but an amusing substitute in this production's conception.

The best performance--the one that most effectively articulates the actor's intentions--comes from Tracy Hultgren as Giorgio. Taut, trim, very much the man of logic and precision, Hultgren remains true to Pirandello while making something original and modern of his role. His Giorgio, much more than MacDuffie as the play's tragic hero Romeo, embodies Pirandello's view of contemporary man, his moral bearings and worldly knowledge crumbling as he confronts the inexplicability of human existence and human action.

Also playing up Evanston way is an original play, Alphonse--not in an art gallery this time, but in a bookstore. That's appropriate, because Alphonse, a portrait of mobster Al Capone, both rises and falls on its reliance on the printed word. Author Kenan Heise, a well-known Chicago historian and Chicago Tribune obituary writer (and proprietor of the bookstore the play's performed in), draws the best part of his script--qualitatively as well as quantitatively--from the transcripts of Capone's tax-evasion trial.

Capone, decaying from middle age, imprisonment, and tertiary syphilis, is shown fending off old memories and phantoms; this gives actor Michael Azzariti the chance to play not only Capone but a variety of lesser characters, each equipped with easy-to-discern, stereotyped vocal mannerisms: Persian rug salesman, drawling southern bookie, old-country Jew, prissy department store salesman (Al's underwear, he coos, was "quite nice, actually"), and thick-tongued Irishman (Ed O'Hare, father of the war hero after whom our airport is named). The dependence on vocal tricks isn't surprising: the director of the show, Jim Parks, is a talented voice-over artist, here stretching into new areas with his stage directing debut.

As a reenactment of Capone's trial, Alphonse is fairly interesting stuff, and Azzariti's posturing as the cocky Capone is frequently entertaining and occasionally scary (especially when he picks up a baseball bat and heads into the audience, at least for those who have seen The Untouchables). Trying to understand Capone's fame, Heise's script touches on some intriguing points--Capone was exploiting the public's thirst for a pleasure government had foolishly seen fit to deny it, he represented glamour and extravagance in an age of depression, he gave jobs to people who needed jobs--and Heise has fun winking at modern parallels between, for instance, President Hoover and President Reagan, prohibition and pot-smoking, Senate judiciary hearings then and now, even Capone's image: "You want respect? You gotta keep tonin' your muscles and you gotta be a dresser." Al Capone as yuppie lawyer is a pretty funny notion.

But in the end none of it--Azzariti's performance or Heise's script--is very convincing. With all those walk-on characters, Capone himself gets lost; and there's never any believable reason for Capone to be talking to us to begin with (a good one-man show needs credible exposition; of course, Al Capone never did book tours like Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, which presents a problem). Still, Alphonse contains the germ of a good idea that's worth following up on; Heise would do well to link up with an experienced dramatist to help him take Al off the page and onto the stage.

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