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THEATER REVIEW Pirandello's Henry IV
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2016-10-19

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Playwright: Luigi Pirandello, translated and adapted by Tom Stoppard. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $42.50-$52.50. Runs through: Nov. 13

Luigi Pirandello is probably the best-known proponent of the connection between real-life actors impersonating fictional characters and our own everyday adoption of different roles as occasion demands. The legacy of this early 20th-century playwright has long been impeded by atonal translations intended for academic study, but Tom Stoppard, himself a champion of sleight-of-hand narratives, has crafted from his intellectually dense source material an adaptation at once breezy and concise.

A few things you might want to know going in are: 1 ) The title character refers to Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich IV ( 1050-1106 ), not the English and French monarchs; 2 ) the man on the throne is not the real Henry, but an Italian playboy who, following a head injury sustained in a fall off a horse at a costume pageant 20 years ago, awoke convinced that he was the German king; and 3 ) our setting is a room in the invalid's home, decorated to look like the royal castle at Gosler, where three servants dressed in period garb are instructing a newly hired fourth in his duties. They are interrupted by the arrival of visitors: the widowed Matilda Spina, her daughter Frida and consort Tito Belcredi, along with the faux-Henry's nephew Carlo di Nolli. They have come with a psychiatrist proposing to cure their delusional comrade by invoking a prototypal form of abreactional therapy. What could go wrong?

The minutiae of the tumultuous reign under scrutiny—itemized by Pirandello in vertigo-inducing detail—is the least of the obstructions confronting the well-meaning meddlers. For one, there are the full-length portraits of Henry and Matilda dressed in High Middle Ages fashion, painted to commemorate the fatal festival, that serve to remind everyone that the latter's daughter looks the very image of her mother, once the object of the pre-concussive Henry's affections. As the conspirators prepare to implement their restorative plan, our alleged madman reveals to his henchmen a secret that changes our view of his hallucinations altogether.

Orienting ourselves to internecine intrigue within two parallel environments at a single sitting can be a formidable task. Fortunately, director Nick Sandys and an ensemble anchored by Mark L. Montgomery's scenery-chomping performance as the batcrackers Henry, retain a firm rein on their personae, guiding us through the chronological and genealogical labyrinths with a verbal agility enabling us to keep pace with the swift reversals Pirandello employs in his diatribe on the duplicity of a society ready to humor a reclusive madman rather than question their part in precipitating his retreat.


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