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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 18, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Enrico IV’
Don’t ask me why the plays of Luigi Pirandello, Italy’s
most revered 20th century playwright and one of the world’s great
dramatists, aren’t given half the stage time of those of Chekhov,
Ibsen, and Shaw, those other deservedly exalted titans of modern dramatic
literature. Never mind, just grab this opportunity to go to the New
Jersey Shakespeare Theater’s production of "Enrico IV," to
see one of the Italian master’s most challenging and complex plays.
Written in 1922, "Enrico IV," is a tragi-comedy of the highest
melodramatic order. And while it doesn’t rank with the author’s better-known
works "Six Characters in Search of an Author" and "Right
You Are If You Think You Are," it is an unparalleled as an exercise
in self-delusion. And except for its chilling climax, it is very funny,
In rather atypical festival fashion, the supporting players appear
as dramatically equipped as are the principals to plunge into Pirandello’s
turbulent psychological waters. It makes for a totally enthralling
experience. However, it is Sherman Howard, making his first appearance
with the festival, who knocks our socks off in the role of the painful
and complex 20th century aristocrat masquerading as the Holy Roman
Emperor Enrico IV (1050 – 1060) of medieval Germany. No less masterful
in his deceit is Michael Nichols, as the condescendingly worthy victim
of Enrico IV’s fantasy.
"Enrico IV" is, in fact, as jolly good a mystery as they come,
one that will keep you guessing and on the edge of your seat the entire
time. Bonnie J. Monte’s delightfully calculated direction, using her
own adaptation of a 1922 translation by Edward Storer, is brimming
with amusing pomp and preposterous circumstance making good use of
the highly theatrical venue. The wonder of Pirandello is that he can
still spin hip contemporary audiences from one level of reality to
another. The ingeniously witty play’s amazing insights about the complexities
of the mind, and its dramatically thickened plot, never seem like
archaic theatrical ploys.
Thrown from a horse at a costumed pageant, the aristocrat awakens
in the belief that he is, indeed, the medieval king he was pretending
to be. His wealthy and obliging friends, having provided him for the
past 20 years with a villa in the Italian countryside replete with
costumed courtiers, embark on a daring plan to shock him back to reality.
Little do they know that he regained his memory about 12 years before,
but has embarked on his own plan of vengeance on those who caused
his fall, namely the woman he loved and his rival. However contrived
and sometimes tedious with exposition, one walks out saying, "What
a plot, what a play."
Howard, a West Coast resident who apparently works primarily in television
(probably best known as Roy, "the Junior Mint guy" on "Seinfeld"),
should be enticed to return to the festival. With his floor mop of
hair framing his wild eyes, his hands and body in constant accord
with his conflicted and agitated mental state, he appears in full
and artful control of Pirandello’s most enigmatically devious character.
Besides the taunting skepticism of Nichol’s impressive Baron, the
other actors who also stand out are the elegantly attired (the handsome
costumes by Hugh Hanson are distinct assets), Vivienne Benesch as
the Marchesa who harbors a secret, and Jenny Gravenstein (another
festival debut) as her petrified, bordering on hysterical daughter,
Frida. Excellent are Herman Petras, as the know-it-all doctor, as
well as the company of conspirators played by Robert Hock, Michael
Stewart Allen, Jeffrey M. Bender, Jay Leibowitz, and Kevin Rolston.
Just as you can rely on Charles T. Wittreich’s impressive medieval
castle chambers to create the right illusion, you can rely on Pirandello
to make that setting tingle with mystery and delusion.
— Simon Saltzman
36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $28-$41. Through September 29. 973-408-5600.
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