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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,

indeed.

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

Enrico IV, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Drew University,

36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $28-$41. Through September 29. 973-408-5600.


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