New York

Il Piccolo Teatro di Milano

As staged by revered Italian director Giorgio Strehler, Luigi Pirandello’s The Mountain Giants, 1936, has the impeccable styling of an Italian movie from the ’60s. The actors in Strehler’s company, II Piccolo Teatro di Milano, breeze across the stage in elegantly cut dresses and summer suits, gesturing broadly. Their intonation reflects the Italian love affair with exaggeration, captured with such surreal humor by masterful filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Indeed, Strehler’s production is a rich period piece, a reminder to American audiences of the visual splendor and philosophical depth that characterized the theater of a bygone time.

Strehler identifies so passionately with the playwright’s overall theme—“the tragedy of poetry in this brutal world”—that he has staged The Mountain Giants twice before, in 1947 and 1966. Though Strehler believes Pirandello’s play is relevant to contemporary audiences, the melodramatic text and the esthetics of Strehler’s production seem trapped in another era. From the first, central scrim decorated with designs that recall Adolph Appia’s drawings of the 1890s, and the whimsical shadow play that takes place behind it, to the marionettes of the second act that are as quaint as Kazimir Malevich’s stiff figurines in Victory Over the Sun, 1912, the production is comprised of conflicting dramatic motifs. Though for Strehler, the leading character, Ilse—a countess and an actress in a traveling theatrical troupe—is the supreme defender of the art of the imagination, she has something of Norma Desmond about her. Self-obsessed, she agonizes repeatedly about whether she should return to acting after a protracted absence. Unfortunately, her deliberations take up as much room in the narrative as the more poignant debates about the value of dreams over reality, of sensitivity over philistinism.

Ilse (played by Andrea Jonasson) holds center stage throughout the production; a pale spotlight sticks to her as she moves across a darkened set, broken by ramps into two horizontal bands. Deep in the shadows, the rest of the cast forms shifting and silent tableaux—one such is a ragtag group of wanderers that inhabit a deserted villa; another, an itinerant band of actors that enters pushing a barrel of costumes, like the entertainers in Hamlet. The battle between art and poetry and the soulless giants against whom Ilse battles, and who will inevitably destroy her, is a story too close to home for the director to resist, or to portray without sentimentality.

A didactic impulse resides both in the text and in the telling—particularly for those who had to listen to partial translations from the Italian on headsets, during which a disembodied voice admonished the audience to “keep the volume on your headsets low, or you will annoy your neighbors.” The same irritating authority was granted to soliloquies by the magician Cotrone (Franco Graziosi). Only through gesture was he able to impart dignity to phrases otherwise lost in translation such as, “One has a better chance of speaking the truth when one invents it.” Thus, in the end, it was best to switch off the commentary and focus on the play of light, the sounds of voices, the shapes of bodies, and the shifting backdrops, which served as a visual homage to the art of theater.

RoseLee Goldberg