Critical Analysis for “Six Degrees of Separation”

            “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare, currently playing on the main stage of Southwest Texas State University Theatre is a brilliant work of both literary and theatrical merit.  The story itself is an unusual one, and the reactions of the characters to the play is even more bizarre, yet highly amusing in many places.  The basic plot is simple.  A young man, Paul, comes into the home of two socialites Ousia and Flan, claiming to be the friend of their children, away at college.  The parents take him in, give him money, and show him off to their guests, only to find him later sleeping with some strange man in their daughter’s vacant bedroom.  The enraged elitists throw him out and try to get on with their lives, but their descent into the utterly bizarre isn’t over yet.  In a talk with their close friends over dinner, Ousia and Flan figure out that the same young man has been going around doing the same thing to several other groups of people and his potentially deadly antics don’t seem to be slowing down, much less stopping.  And indeed, they take on a highly more bizarre and almost sinister tone as the play progresses to its conclusion and its amazing, symbolic ending.

            With one exception, everyone in the play did a fantastic job in their acting and vocal presentations.  Marc Pouhe, who plays Paul, was completely believable, both as a barely off the street youth and as an engaging young man from Harvard.  Though everyone was quite amazing, I particularly enjoyed the acting talent of Kathryn Lott who played Ousia.  Her vocal skill and incredible body language clearly showed her fall (?) from her higher class self into a new self that suffered less from the pretensions of society.  She becomes enlightened by the end of the play- but it seems as though this enlightenment has come to her at a great cost, though the surrealistic ending leaves much for discussion.

              Indeed, much of the piece was highly rooted in surrealism- with people talking on the phone by stepping down to lower platforms, or the voicing of many of the inner monologues of the characters (“two million dollars, two million dollars, two million dollars”).  Some of the surrealism in the piece was a bit unsettling at first, but before the first act was over, it became clear that the surrealism was an excellent way to convey the message that these people were cold people, alienated from even themselves.

            In addition to surrealism, symbolism also plays an incredibly large role in “Six Degrees…” the symbolism of art- visual, aural and written, being the most paramount.  From the spinning Kandinsky painting in upstage center (“it’s painted on both sides”) to the constant references to Catcher in the Rye, to the somewhat classy, somewhat sleazy music in the background, art forms of all kinds play quite heavily into the piece.  I particularly enjoyed having the live band playing instead of some CD music cues- it gave the piece a much more classy feel to it.  The main character is an art dealer who really just loves art, but he cannot own the very same art he loves- he must turn around and sell it as soon as he acquires it in order to keep afloat- just as he must sink further into high society and sell more and more of his soul, becoming more of an animatron than an art lover.  Art has lost its soul for him.  Paul picks a well-known actor to claim as his father and then an actor/actress couple to live with for some time.  And then of course, there’s always the spinning painting in the center of the stage, and the powerful realization that Ouisa comes to that if a painting can be painted on two sides, why can’t she?

            The set design for the show was also quite remarkable.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show where none of the platforms had edges.  The platforms are a series of circles that allow people to enter and exit.  The circles of the platform lend to the previously mentioned surrealistic air of the show and are also highly symbolic of it’s contents- the thought that everyone is connected to everybody else by six people or less, in one huge circle of “who knows who”.  The circle is all-inclusive, perfect, and connected.  So, the playwright claims, are we all connected by threads that we cannot see.  The strange doorway to their apartment is a symbol all into itself.  The doorway is a work of modern art, but there is something cold, soulless about it- not the least of which is the skeletal appearance of the beams of the door, like the vertebrae of some huge, malevolent animal.

The use of color in the piece was, in my opinion, nothing short of genius.  The set is a stark grey color that makes the odd art sculpture in the back stand out all the more.  Most of the characters were dressed in cool, earthy colors.  The flashes of color were few and far between- a scarf, a whisp of hair, the red of the wine in a glass.  And then, the costumer chose to put Paul, the man who came so oddly into these people’s lives, in a light pink shirt, which he stays in for most of the play.  The shirt is highly symbolic- both in that it sets him apart from the monochromatic existence of the others, and that he is really the only person in the play that is truly enlightened.  Then, at the end, when Ouisa manages to achieve the same enlightenment, she is bathed in a bright pink light as she leaves the theatre for parts unknown- an action that the other characters never manage to accomplish.

The overall effect of the show was something akin to watching a tornado beginning to spin- pulling air from all around until the tension is so much that something must happen.  The drama spirals inwards until it closes in on Ouisa, who begins to become less and less content with her supposedly wonderful life, until she is spurred into action.  The name of the play, “Six Degrees of Separation” is a highly appropriate title.  For although the game, commonly played as the Kevin Bacon game, is a game of connections; within the play, it is obvious that it is not really that connection to others we should focus on, but the connection within ourselves.  The story told within “Six Degrees…” is not one of connection, but of complete lack of connection, both to each other, and to our own imaginations and dreams, and serves as a warning to us against such hideous self- alienation.