There’s a tradition of actors playing many roles in a single production, frequently to comic effect. Flat Earth Theatre’s production of “Enigma Variations,” running Friday through April 27 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, goes in the opposite direction.
Two characters. Each played by three actors. All six of them onstage at once.
“There are all these different people that live in all of us,” explains director Sarah Gazdowicz.
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s play, translated from the French by Jeremy Sams, depicts the meeting of reclusive Nobel laureate Abel Znorko and journalist Erik Larsen, who comes to Znorko’s island redoubt to interview him about his new book. Ostensibly fiction, it’s an epistolary romance between the author and a mysterious woman named Helen.
Znorko greets his visitor with gunfire. He misses. It’s difficult to say more without spoilers.
Suffice to say that nearly nothing is as it seems. The play is named for an Elgar composition that is a favorite of Znorko’s. Secrets, surprises, and reversals continue until the last moments of the play, as the men argue, rage, make up, and start over again. The nature of love and the need for human connection are at the heart of it all.
“This is a play that is so much about people’s inherent unknowability,” says Gazdowicz.
Schmitt wrote “Enigma Variations” to be performed as a two-hander. But in the Flat Earth production, Znorko and Larsen have each been divided into three archetypes, referred to in rehearsals as the Writer, the Lover, and the Mortal Man. Each is played by a different actor, speaking different lines of the character’s dialogue. All are onstage throughout, and each is conscious of the others.
“There are split voices in a lot of the monologues,” Gazdowicz says. “It winds up turning into this argument, this discussion that this character is having with themselves, with the different parts of themselves, while expressing an idea to the character opposite them.”
Cliff Blake, Lindsay Eagle, and Cassandra Meyer play Znorko, while Cameron Beaty Gosselin, David N. Rogers, and Rebecca Lehrhoff play Larsen. Gazdowicz didn’t break down the script for the six parts until they started rehearsals, she says. The cast helped shape the way the archetypes interact, and suggested which of them should speak certain parts. “They saw the thing that inspired them and they went to it,” she says. “And like a more traditional production, once people had sort of claimed their archetype, they were able to be an advocate for that part of the character.”
For Gosselin, who acted for Gazdowicz in a Flat Earth production of “The Pillowman” last year, the concept took some getting used to.
“Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work,” he says. “We’ve changed who’s said what and who they’re talking to.”
With women playing some of the parts, too, it’s a tricky concept to make easily understandable for the audience, Gazdowicz concedes.
“I think visual cues are going to be very important for people to understand that these three people are all a single character,” she says.
Blocking is definitely a factor, she says, as are similarities in their costumes, which are by Coriana Hunt Swartz. “All the Znorkos are wearing these heavily cabled, textured sweaters, and the Larsens are all wearing, like, green and blue argyle,” Gazdowicz says. “Though they won’t be exactly the same, that will be a very clear cue.”
She agreed to direct the show about a year ago, but it was only around December that she decided to try turning two characters into six. It was, she says, just one of those “crazy ideas” that are part of the creative process, but one that seemed like it would actually work. First she had to explain the idea to the Flat Earth team.
“They looked at me and took a deep breath and then they said, ‘OK, let’s talk about that.’ They just wanted to make sure that they understood and that it served the text,” she says.
She says that initially there was an additional motivation for splitting up the parts: She’s found the pool of older male actors doing fringe theater to be small. As it happens, Blake, one of the actors playing Znorko, is in his 50s. By the time he came in to audition, though, the die was cast.
“For me,” Gazdowicz says, “the concept just sort of wound up taking over.”
Chester Theatre Company will kick off its 2013 season with the world premiere of a play with music by the creators of the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening.” “Arms on Fire,” by Steven Sater (“Prometheus Bound”) and Duncan Sheik, tells the story of a friendship between Smith, a young singer, and Ulysses, a factory worker in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. It runs June 26-July 7.
Also on the schedule: “Tryst,” July 11-21, a psychological thriller by Karoline Leach; Annie Baker’s contemporary comedy “Body Awareness,” July 31-Aug. 11; and Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s “An Iliad,” a reimagining of Homer’s classic, Aug. 15-25.