Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV is a puzzle play, an airy intellectual game that is played out in high-voltage confrontations and ends in sudden violence. Its great strength is its theatricality, its unabashed reveling in the business of acting. At its best moments it reminds us that “play” as in delight - is at the heart of the whole business of theater. Its greatest weakness, at least in Tom Stoppard’s pared-down adaptation, is that it seems to float just out of touch with reality in that Modernist limbo of tantalizing, implacable metaphors hinting at connection and significance but never quite delivering.
The thesis is intriguing. An Italian nobleman, injured twenty years ago in a fall while portraying Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, woke with the delusion that he was indeed the emperor, and has been humored in his madness by his family, who have created what amounts to a stage set for his castle and hired a cast of young men to play his retainers. His supportive sister having recently died, “Henry” – whose real name we never learn – is confronted, in more or less real time, by a posse of family and friends, who may or may not wish him well, but intend to put an end to his madness with the help of a bumbling psychiatrist whose methods mock the theories of Freud and his followers.
In the opening scene, the audience is invited into the game of play-within-the-play as the crew of retainers, costumed as eleventh century knights, break those characters and discuss in quite contemporary language the requirements and frustrations of their acting jobs. Then comes a larger scene in which the visitors appear and we learn more of the background. The evening finally gets off the ground when Henry himself arrives in his mock throne room to receive three of the visitors, garbed of course as eleventh century visitors to the court.
The weight of the play’s theatricality is on the shoulders of Andrew Long, a veteran Shakespearian who was soberly effective in the Rep’s production of Copenhagen. His is the daunting task of playing a madman who is playing the role of a madman while keeping the audience aware of and connected to the human being at the core of these concentric shells. With unflagging energy and brilliant command of both voice and body, Long rants and cajoles and confronts his audiences both onstage and in the seats, winning for this improbable eccentric at last something like compassion, even as the idea emerges that his madness, like Hamlet’s, is not what it appears to be.
Jerry Vogel, a St. Louis favorite who gets better every time we see him, does a terrific job of giving the antagonist enough strength and color to hold the stage amidst Mr. Long’s pyrotechnics, and Susan Wands as the emperor’s one-time lover – and just perhaps the mother of his child – handles her end of the often absurd confrontations with great aplomb.
Director Steven Woolf brings admirable order to what could easily have been chaotic movement, keeps the energy level high and the pacing brisk, and wrings as much out of Pirandello/Stoppard’s dazzling potpourri of ideas and images as is, one reckons, humanly possible. Special credit is due the design team of Narelle Sissons, Elizabeth Covey, and Mary Jo Dondlinger for the set, costumes, and lighting, respectively, for creating a solid foundation for this blithely surreal play.
In short, fine acting, strong direction, and excellent design characterize this production of an intriguing but strange play. There’s a lot of enjoyment in the experience, even if there’s not much meat to take home afterwards.
Henry IV will run through March 10 at the Loretto Hilton Center for the Performing Arts; for ticket information, phone (314)968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.