Staff Writers Isa RingswaldEgan and Phoebe Mulder attended the opening night of the Pirandello Project. Editor’s warning: mentions of suicide.

On the evening of Thursday, October 22, Isa RingswaldEgan and Phoebe Mulder attended the opening night of the Pirandello Project, a devised performance staged by the Barnard Department of Theater and the Columbia University Major in Theater and the Dramatic Arts. The Pirandello Project was directed by Barnard theater professor Alice Reagan and performed in the Minor Latham Playhouse. 

The performance featured the writings of Luigi Pirandello (1863-1936), an Italian writer best known for his plays, which center heavily around the concept of identity. Pirandello won the Nobel Prize in 1934 for his “almost magical ability to turn psychological analysis into good theater.” 

The Pirandello Project is anchored in his 1917 play, Right You Are If You Think You Are, which follows an eccentric family as they shamelessly poke into the private life of their mysterious neighbors. Scenes from the show are interspersed by events and writings from Pirandello’s own life, devised by the ensemble. As a whole, the collection of work tells the story of Pirandello as a prolific but deeply troubled writer; a man with a dramatic, toxic relationship with himself and with others. Switching deftly from scenes from Right You Are If You Think You Are to devised work, ensemble grappled with questions that haunted Pirandello and still haunt modern audiences. Who are we? How do we know for sure? And what do our communities look like? The lighting, costuming, script composition, and acting were cleanly constructed and performed through a striking absurdist and futurist lens. 

The scenes from Right You Are If You Think You Are featured exaggerated greyscale costuming and acting. Mr. Ponza, played by Shayan Hooshmand (CC ‘23), wore black leather gloves with long black acrylic nails on the ends of each finger, and a disproportionately broad houndstooth coat. Dina, played by Amelia Mason (BC ‘24), wore a headband with a bow the size of her head flopping comically on top, and a dress with a similarly gargantuan bow at the back of the waistline. The costumes added to the enjoyably wacky body language and theatrics of the entire cast. These scenes were followed by strikingly absurd transitions of the cast holding plants, miming unintelligible actions, and more. 

The over-the-top quality of the overarching story made these moments of realism more powerful, settled, grounded in reality. We saw Pirandello’s wife in a mental asylum, seeking freedom, disconnected from reality but simultaneously tragically cognizant of her surroundings. John Howley’s (CC ‘25) readings of Pirandello’s manipulative letters to much younger actress Marta Abba, played by Ava Markhovsky (BC ‘25), and Marta’s reactions were particularly striking. These started marginally obsessive, escalated to threats of suicide, and ended with the final letter being performed as Pirandello literally dragged himself across the stage.

The play-within-a-play and the material devised directly from Pirandello’s life worked both with and against each other. Double-casting was used for enormous effect–the multiple roles of each actor performed each other and added layers of heightened emotion. The moments of absurdism cut between scenes grounded the excerpts from Pirandello’s life in reality and quiet drama, while also continuously heightening the tension and raising the stakes. 

There were moments of humor dispersed throughout, with characters eating popcorn, bumping into each other, and running around frantically. But the most impactful moments were those that are understated, where the entire audience seemed to wait with bated breath. Marta’s conflicting sympathy and disgust with the desperate, manipulative Pirandello, or Pirandello’s sister’s quiet plea for him to return home. The ensemble clearly uplifted the emotional core of the work amidst the buzzy, campy Right You Are If You Think You Are. The Pirandello Project tells the story of a deeply troubled, immoral man. But the cast infuses the show with moments of levity and absurdism in a way that only emphasizes this reality. 

The Pirandello Project is playing on Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm.

Pirandello Image via Wikipedia Commons