If any show promises to be good for you, it’s “Kaos.” To begin, it’s the work of director-choreographer Martha Clarke, who boasts a MacArthur grant and unassailable downtown cred. Upping the respectability, she’s taken one of the 20th century’s most revered writers — Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello — as her inspiration, adapting four of his short stories into a production that’s already nabbed a $100,000 Tony Randall Grant for its preem at New York Theater Workshop. But the weight of its pedigree seems to flatten the show. Though impeccably crafted, “Kaos” suffers from an unwavering severity.
Dourness begins with the plot, which spins three tales about suffering Italian villagers. Pirandello himself was from a town whose name means “chaos,” and his stories — performed in Italian with English surtitles — reflect the word. Scribe Frank Pugliese adapts them to highlight the randomness of misfortune.
For instance, there’s no apparent cause when a woman is imprisoned in a cave where she’s raped and impregnated. Later, another woman discovers her husband goes insane whenever there’s a full moon, and a capricious landowner refuses to let his farmers be buried in the ground they till.
Clarke’s choreography suggests how these individual woes can define an entire community. She frequently ends scenes by putting her 14 actors into circles, spinning and thrashing and wailing in unison. Floor lights make their shadows massive on a scrim, while Jill Jaffe and John T. La Barbera’s melancholy music (a mixture of original compositions, classical pieces and Italian folk songs) underscores the misery. In effect, we see the company as a single body, defined by pain.
In cinematic opening moments — the play is also inspired by the Taviani brothers film based on the same stories — Clarke creates a vista of unhappiness. Clusters of thesps are spread across the stage, engaged in their own dramas. As in a panoramic movie, the eye can detect more than it can possibly comprehend. When the first story begins, it appears to be breaking forth from an expansive world.
That’s an exciting technique, but every part of Clarke’s world is the same. For instance, while the rape victim (Daria Deflorian) describes her misfortune to a neighbor, other thesps interpret it through dance. Later, an actor plays the moon that tortures Vito Di Bella’s character. These are all just variations on the simplistic idea that everyone shares everyone else’s anguish.
Production elements are uniformly morose. Thesps share the same stern expression and speak in a slow, self-serious cadence. Jaffe and La Barbera’s music stays glum, and Donna Zakowska’s costumes are all drab.
Clarke does create beautiful images — particularly when women are lifted off the ground, their bodies bent by internal grief — but they cannot overcome the monotonous storytelling.
The flatness contradicts Pirandello. Plays like “Six Characters in Search of an Author” also explore the horrors of living, but they offset pain with tenderness and wit.
The surtitles reveal that even this text has the potential for variety. And it’s easy to get lost in the words, since they are projected either far above the cast or several feet away from their playing space. Auds must choose between watching the show and reading its script, which only makes the bleak theatrics less engaging.