One can only hope that, during his years as an undergraduate at Notre Dame University, Manti Te’o has come across the plays of Luigi Pirandello. If so, he got a preview of the problems that would soon plague his well-publicized life.
Pirandello, who strongly influenced such absurdists as Beckett and Ionesco, wrote about the slipperiness of truth and the difficulty of definitively distinguishing reality from fiction. What’s more, he dramatized the way we love to gossip, especially about people we don’t really know.
Both of those themes would surely resonate with the college football star who discovered that his online-only girlfriend did not, in fact, exist.
“We had been in rehearsals for two weeks when that story broke,” said director Simon Williams, who is directing Theatre UCSB’s production of Pirandello’s dark comedy Absolutely! (perhaps). “We thought, ‘This is it! It’s Pirandello!’
“The football player had quite clearly created the reality of this person in his own mind. That’s absolutely what Pirandello is talking about. So this play is much more timely than I thought.”
Written in 1917, the play — which has also been called, in English, Right You Are! (If You Think So) — concerns three earthquake survivors who take up residence in a small Italian town: a man, his mother-in-law, and his wife, who remains in seclusion.
The mother-in-law complains that the husband won’t let her see her daughter. He insists that the old woman is insane because her daughter is actually dead, and the young woman is actually his second wife. There is no way to verify either story, but that doesn’t stop the townsfolk from speculating and coming up with their own conjectures.
“What you see in this play is almost the birth of celebrity culture,” Williams said. “[The townsfolk find] anybody they can get ahold of to fasten some fantasy on.”
Williams, who ranks Pirandello among the greatest 20th-century playwrights, recalls seeing a production of the play in Vienna in 1974. This is his first time directing it.
“When I auditioned and cast it, I was surprised at the number of comic talents I discovered,” he said. “So we’re veering a little bit more toward the comic because it fits the cast so well. We have one or two great goofballs onstage. We’re borrowing a little from the commedia dell’arte.”
He’s using a translation playwright Martin Sherman created for a 2003 London production, which was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred Joan Plowright. “One of the things I liked about the Sherman translation is it’s the most concise, and the most fluid, of all the versions I read,” he said. “It has a good, modern sense of humor.”
Writing in the London newspaper The Guardian in advance of that production, Zeffirelli recounted an incident that took place at the play’s premiere in Rome in 1918. Disturbed by the work’s implications, “One irate theatergoer tore his seat from its moorings and hurled it onto the stage,” he wrote. “It narrowly missed Pirandello’s head and landed at his feet. The playwright placed the seat upright and sat down, saying: ‘Thank you so much. It’s been a very tiring day.’”
The story may be apocryphal, but it certainly feels right.
“It’s a strange, dark play in some ways,” Williams noted. “It begins as a bright comedy of manners, but it [gradually explores] the darker realms of human experience.
“There’s a line toward the end where one character expresses the need for ‘compassion and silence.’ I hope audiences will take away a burning concern for respecting the privacy of other people. I hope they will also come away with a deep compassion for people who do not fit in.”
Absolutely! (perhaps) opens at 8 p.m. Friday, February 15, and runs through Saturday, February 23, in the Performing Arts Theater on the UCSB campus. Tickets are $17 general or $13 for students and seniors. For more information, call (805) 893-7221 or go to www.theaterdance.ucsb.edu.