When Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” premiered in Italy in 1921, it was considered radical. It called into question the very bounds of reality. It is still considered a masterpiece, but after 90 years, a more tame one.

Director Alan Berks and his company, in a co-production with Gremlin Theatre, have adapted Pirandello’s script for a contemporary audience, and have done it brilliantly. They’ve cut the three-act play by more than half, eliminating a number of characters, and have given it a thoroughly new context.

In the original, a group of actors are rehearsing a play when six characters wander in. An author has created them and their plot, but never completed the play. They are looking for someone to tell their story. In Berks’ adaptation, the characters interrupt the filming of a reality television show. This not only updates the play, but adds another layer: the questionable “reality” of the TV show.

The extensive use of live video, both the offstage filming of the actual show and the onstage filming of the characters telling their story, vividly amplifies the melodrama, also adding another layer of disorientation.

Under Berks’ sharp direction, interest never flags. He successfully explicates Pirandello’s complex exploration of reality and identity, while still engaging the audience’s compassion.

Ironically, the characters are more vividly rendered than the supposedly real people. John Middleton as the Father and ShaVunda Horsley as the Step Daughter carry on a compelling battle of recrimination. Colleen Barrett as the Mother and Max Wojtanowicz as the Son are equally compelling in their silence.

The three reality-show participants successfully add a layer of humanity to the archetypes that they are playing: Sam Landman as the jerk, Rachel Finch as the flirt, and Michael Terrell Brown as the dude.

It is the Producer who most fully grapples with the questions of reality and identity, as he attempts to exploit the characters’ story for his show. It is moving to see Bryan Porter crippled by the effort.

For all the liberties that this production takes with Pirandello, it captures the essence of the play, translating and even amplifying the central issues. Berks and company have created a powerful philosophical tragedy, both moving and thought-provoking. 

William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater.