Credit: Chris Popio

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