Henry IV | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

We never see any of the characters making any absolute statements as to whose version of reality is the better one. This leaves the audience questioning their own realities—honestly questioning, something that theater rarely gets the audience as a whole to do.

 

By Luigi Pirandello
Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Steven Woolf
Through March 10, 2006

Are you crazy? Am I crazy? Is that guy over there talking to himself crazy? Just when you think you know the answer to a question like this, you don’t know. This is the central theme behind the latest offering at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV.

The play—originally written in Italian in the early 1900s—gets a new life with this translation by one of the greatest playwrights of the last 50 years, Tom Stoppard. The play lends itself to Stoppard’s unique voice and Stoppard, in turn, lends his sense of timing and unusualness to the original script. Using madness as a springboard for the idea, Pirandello and Stoppard take a close look at what defines a person as insane.

The play itself—not to be confused with Shakespeare’s play King Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—is named after the German king, rather than the English king made famous by the bard. But it’s not really about Henry IV. The play instead focuses on a man from the present day who is convinced that he’s the monarch from the 11th century. He finds himself in this unusual situation by way of an accident that happened nearly 20 years ago. He and several of his friends were participating in the local community’s history pageant, where everyone dressed up as an historical figure. Choosing Henry IV as his character, he dazzles the crowds and his friends with his knowledge and commitment to character. However, during the soiree, someone strikes his horse, causing him to be thrown and suffer a nasty head injury. When he awakens, he honestly believes himself to be Henry IV. When he doesn’t come out of it, his friends and family realize that he needs treatment.

Rather than commit him to an institution, Henry’s sister instead decides to use her considerable wealth to construct a home for him, complete with furnishings that make it appear like an 11th century castle. There, Henry lives with hired actors who portray Henry’s court, waiting on him hand and foot. To make things even more interesting, the court—and any visitor ever brought before Henry—must dress in authentic period costumes so as not to upset him.

After 20 years of this lunacy, his sister dies and leaves the care of Henry to her son Count Carlo Di Nolli (Dan Domingues). However, she feels that Henry may be coming out of his delusional state, and calls her son to do what he can to bring Henry back into the real world. Di Nolli decides that he’s going to try a new type of treatment that will shock Henry back to reality; as the play begins, we see his plan falling into place.

Di Nolli enlists the help of a doctor (John Thomas Waite) and two of Henry’s longtime friends, Belcredi and Matilda (Jerry Vogel, Susan Wands), to help pull Henry from his delirium. He also asks his fiancé—and Matilda’s daughter—Frida (Lori Prince) to help out. As it turns out, Matilda came to the pageant dressed as Matilda of Tuscany, the woman for whom the real Henry IV pined; as such, the man who fancies himself Henry IV is still pining away for her. We also learn that Matilda and Belcredi have been in a long-term relationship, dating back to about the time of the pageant, and that said relationship is founded on the snippy repartee that they enjoy.

The “cure” that Di Nolli and the Doctor are going to try out is a form of “shock therapy,” in which the friends will dress as they did at the pageant, and then reveal themselves to be who they really are, complete with Di Nolli playing Henry IV. This makes sense in the context of the play, due to the fact that, for 20 years, anyone who has interacted with Henry has had to dress up and assume an identity from the 11th century. The trick is very reminiscent of The Man of La Mancha, in which the Knight of the Mirrors confronts Don Quixote with an image of himself to shock him back into the present.

What we soon discover, though, is that Henry is not really mad. At least, not anymore. Sometime in the last few years, he has emerged from his delusion, only to realize that life is much simpler when the world caters to him. He takes this theory to extremes by indulging everyone’s expectations of him and acting as loony as he can, shifting from one subject or mood to the next. In the end, we find that Belcredi was responsible for the horse that Henry was riding to become scared, causing him to be thrown. In a moment of true madness, Henry snaps and stabs Belcredi, but only after he’s blown his cover to the collection of friends, family, and employees. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Henry IV an intriguing work.

What works against this being an intriguing piece is the convoluted first third of the show. Running at 85 minutes with no intermission, the first 20 or so minutes of the play are a bit hard to follow, and a little exasperating due to the over-exuberance of the young actors portraying the employees charged with waiting on Henry. Alex Burkhardt, Nathan Lee Burkhardt, Will Davis, and Matt Timme (all currently members of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University) seem just a tad too excited to be in this play. Their energy is good, just slightly misdirected. By contrast, Vogel and Wand’s performances are much more low-key, yet retain a fierceness that shows a good chemistry.

The standout role, though, is (and should be) Andrew Long as Henry. Long does amazing work with this script, and it’s only when he makes his first appearance as Henry that the show really gets going. The craziness that Long crams into this performance is something that must be seen to be fully appreciated. He as able to move from one incoherent thought to the next without skipping a beat. His energy is marvelous and his facial expressions are a show unto themselves. Handling the majority of the dialogue once he finally enters, Long has the unenviable task of carrying this show almost completely by himself. Save for a few moments when Vogel, Wands, Prince, and Domingues are present, this might as well have been a one-man show.

Steven Wolf’s direction is nearly perfect. I felt that there really wasn’t much he could do with the first 20 minutes to make it more enjoyable (aside from toning down the four younger actors); unfortunately, that’s just the way Stoppard wrote it. Woolf does hit on an interesting facet with this work, though. Peeling back the layers of the characters to determine who really is sane or insane, he doesn’t make any judgments. We never see any of the characters making any absolute statements as to whose version of reality is the better one. This works well, and leaves the audience questioning their own realities—honestly questioning, something that theater rarely gets the audience as a whole to do.

So while the play isn’t perfect, it is definitely worth the time. Long’s performance is reason enough to plunk down some cash and ask for a ticket. Throw in some great peripheral elements in the way of set, light, and costume designs, and a very interesting turn of events two-thirds of the way into the show, and you have yourself a bona fide winner.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents the new Tom Stoppard adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV through March 10 on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center for Performing Arts (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves). Performances run Tuesdays—Sundays, and tickets range from $13—$61. A complete schedule of show times and ticket prices can be found by calling 314-968-4925, or by visiting www.repstl.org.

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