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[Theater reviews]

Enter the king
Enrico IV holds court at the ART


Enrico IV
By Luigi Pirandello. Adapted by Robert Brustein from a literal translation by Gloria Pastorino. Directed by Karin Coonrod. Set design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind. Sound by David Remedios. With David Patrick Kelly, Stephanie Roth-Haberle, Ayca Varlier, Sean Dugan, Stephen Rowe, Alvin Epstein, Sean Haberle, Craig Doescher, Sandro Isaack, Remo Airaldi, and Bill Salem. Presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, in repertory through January 13.

Pirandello’s Enrico IV inspires the same question the Lone Ranger does when vamoosing after a good deed: who was that masked man? The eponymous hero of the Italian playwright’s 1922 masterpiece is the polar opposite of his famous six characters, who are looking to be released from the straitjacket of their roles. A 20th-century Italian aristocrat who fell off his horse and hit his head while impersonating the 11th-century Holy Roman emperor and German king in a costumed cavalcade, Enrico’s central character awoke convinced the fantasy was real. As the play begins, he has been living it for 20 years, eschewing the passage of time and his real life. It’s a heady set-up for an exploration of Pirandello’s favorite themes: the prickly interactions between truth and illusion, sanity and madness, acting and existing, identity and disguise.

Yet the intellectually rigorous work, which is rarely performed in this country, can be a philosophical bludgeon. At the American Repertory Theatre, in an effectively concentrated yet faithful adaptation by artistic director Robert Brustein that’s underlined by electrically enhanced bursts of Gregorian chant, it is instead almost assaultingly theatrical, the interplay between Enrico’s mad, pained, poignant reality and the brittle one of his 20th-century aristocratic contemporaries being acute. As for the masks, David Patrick Kelly’s violently concentrated Enrico, half-sprung from the prison of his role (though, tellingly, given no other identity in the script), seems the only character not wearing one. And his real face, as if registering fear of its own absence, is terrifying.

The play is more often translated into English as Henry IV. The ART was afraid that calling it so might lead to its being mistaken for Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays — as it is, in Brustein’s adaptation, by the latest actor who’s been engaged to play a part in the ongoing pageant Enrico’s wealthy family has arranged for him. (In Pirandello’s original, the disoriented actor thinks he’s to play a lackey in the court of France’s Henry IV, not England’s.) The ruse into which this unsuspecting thespian is drafted features a lamp-lit 11th-century throne room built into the madman’s Umbrian villa and a cast of " secret counselors " hired to keep him occupied. And occupied he seems to be, having dug into the moment in Enrico IV’s life when, after knocking heads with Pope Gregory VII, he’s forced to do penance by standing barefoot in the snow at Canossa while various persons intercede for him. One of these interceders is the emperor’s sworn enemy and the pope’s ally, Matilde of Tuscany. When for that fateful cavalcade the since-addled aristocrat opted to personify Enrico, Matilde was the guise taken by the woman he loved, the Marchesa Matilde Spina, who made him history after he took the emperor’s identity for his own.

As the play opens, she and an embassy from the real world — the madman’s nephew, Carlo de Nolli; Matilde’s look-alike daughter Frida; a fatuous baron named Tito Belcredi, who is Matilde’s current man toy; and the psychiatric charlatan Dionisio Genoni — have just arrived at the villa. Enrico has shown signs of coming out of it, and the doctor has been brought in to have a look. Once there, Dionisio cooks up a " radical shock treatment " to startle the emperor out of the delusion that seems at this point to have but a tenuous hold.

At the ART, the towering if dungeon-like throne room is very much a stage set, with a steeply raked floor of metal grating and a high iron-backed seat of power. The " portraits " of the unnamed aristo garbed as Enrico and Matilde Spina in her Matilde-of-Tuscany get-up that the script calls for have been replaced by green-tinged stone statues suspended above the throne, as if on scales. The wings, where servants and visitors wait to enter the elaborate fantasy, are visible. After an unscheduled (by Pirandello) appearance by Enrico, who’s flagellating himself to punitive wails of chant, the " intruders from the second millennium, " all formally garbed in black, rise up out of the orchestra pit like apparitions in a tableau. Already, reality looks stagier and more frozen than Enrico’s illusion, which, at least for him, pulses with desperate life.

Enrico IV is a difficult work — which is probably why everybody does Six Characters in Search of an Author, which immediately precedes it in the Pirandello canon and which the ART revives from time to time in the haunting production adapter Brustein built on his own theater company. The harder play is a brilliant metaphor that takes a while to set up (the first of three acts trimmed and performed here without an intermission is almost entirely expository). But once Enrico’s dilemma is revealed, it’s both wrenching and mentally intriguing.

The title character, now approaching 50, evidently awoke from his 11th-century dream some 12 years into it to discover his real-life youth vanished, whereupon he opted to remain fixed in history, forever 26, forever immune to chance, trapped in a solitude he can at least control. He is, however, bitterly cognizant of who some of his visitors are (though they dress up as characters in the Enrico fantasy) and aware that they, at least, have grown old. By contrast, he came to himself, he explains, and " was terrified because I understood at once that not only had my hair gone gray, but that I was all gray, inside; that everything had fallen to pieces, that everything was finished; and I was going to arrive, hungry as a wolf, at a banquet which had already been cleared away. " These are the words of the Eric Bentley translation. Brustein, though he streamlines Pirandello’s theme banging and drolly updates the theater jokes, retains the play’s most crucial speeches intact.

New York–based director Karin Coonrod’s only previous ART outing was the unsalvageable The Idiots Karamazov (unless you count the staged reading of the Falstaffiad with critic Harold Bloom as the fat knight). For this staging, she fully exploits the theatricality of Enrico IV, underlining the contrast between the play’s bloodless and petty 20th-century interlopers and Enrico’s crucible as manned by compassionate buffoons. A consequence of this, though not necessarily a negative, is that the play becomes almost entirely a one-man show.

Enrico, we are told, was intense and unpredictable (not to mention existentially attuned to the vagaries of identity and love) even before he took refuge in madness. The play’s other characters, from the solipsistic marchesa to the posturing doctor to the shmoozing baron, are two-dimensional and shallow. So is it any wonder that, at the ART, despite a commanding turn by the returning Stephanie Roth-Haberle as the marchesa and an ingratiatingly snaky one by ART vet Stephen Rowe as the baron, the supporting cast members make little impression beyond their pasty make-up and Catherine Zuber’s grotesquely elegant duds? A close-cropped Alvin Epstein is aptly pompous as the doctor endeavoring to pinpoint Enrico’s " extremely lucid pathology. " And among the quartet of actors hired to man the title character’s fantasy realm, Remo Airaldi is quite good as the terrified newcomer, who’s backed up for much of the play against the prison-like wall festooned with Enrico’s Holy Roman emperor title in Italian, looking like a chubby version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

But Enrico IV belongs, invariably, to its title character, and Obie Award winner Kelly gives a stunningly volatile and physical performance in what is a bravura but intellectually dense and verbose role. A veteran of Broadway, film (including the current K-PAX), and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre of Richard Foreman, Kelly is a compact actor with a big, craggy-featured head. As Enrico, he’s as unpredictable as the character himself, making his first scripted entrance on all fours, then pulling at his dyed blond hair as he expostulates on the " mask " of youth, slithering under the " prison " of his throne like a snake, letting the word " life " ooze from his throat as he imagines life oozing down the arms of the old shrink got up in an 11th-century monk’s robe.

Kelly’s Enrico is both affected and anguished, stage-managing the drama about him even as he piercingly, contemptuously surveys it. Delivering the famous second-act speech that defines alienation as looking into another’s eyes and realizing " you might as well be a beggar before a door never to be opened to you, " he hunches painfully in on himself, then opens like a malformed flower, his mouth frozen in a smile. This is a performance that is at once histrionic and exposed, grounded in a suffering that, as Pirandellian paradox would have it, is real whether its context is or not.

Issue Date: December 20-27, 2001

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