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Enrico IV

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/3/2004

Enrico IV

By Luigi Pirandello

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Nov. 28

Patrons of this production are urged by box-office staff to read the two pages of program notes before the house lights dim. It’s good advice. This is no Pajama Game, but rather a heady, heavy work with two notable playwrights’ fingerprints on it: Italian absurdist Luigi Pirandello, who penned it in 1922, and American modernist Tom Stoppard, who gave it a recent English translation. Left un-Anglicized is the title, since as Henry IV it might be confused with some other playwright’s work. But the Hank 4.0 in question here is not the 15th century English monarch, but the 11th century head of the Holy Roman Empire, whose reign was fraught with crown-vs.-miter power clashes with the papacy.

The play is set in modern times, however, where we meet a wealthy Italian nobleman who happens to think he is the titular monarch. He attended a costume pageant dressed as Henry IV, suffered a head wound while thusly attired, and emerged mentally stuck some eight centuries in the past. Cash has allowed him to keep reality at bay. Costumed hired hands cater to his dementia, freeing him to strut about a fabricated castle in vintage togs rehashing aspects of Henry’s turbulent life.

The play’s action revolves around a group of visitors to this brain-damaged playpen, most notably Henry’s old flame Matilda (Cherie Weinert), who had been with him at the fateful pageant, her new boyfriend, Belcredi (Richard Peck), and her daughter Frida (Leslie Fields). A psychiatrist (Katherine Lyons) is on hand as well with a plan to “cure” the ersatz emperor. What we get when these emissaries from the here and now are tossed into the throwback throne room of the mad monarch is a long-winded, convoluted costume drama.

It’s all just too much: Too many playwrights, too much historical backstory, too many pompous, platitudinous monologues. (“We inhabit the self we chose for ourselves,” Henry espouses. Oooh, deep.) Surprisingly, Stoppard’s retooling brings very little 21st century edge to the 80-year-old work. Director Barry Feinstein overtly sprinkles cell phones and laptops about as if to compensate. Chris Graybill (pictured), meanwhile, turns in an intense performance as head-sick Henry. Indeed, before his scene-chomping histrionics, the stiff supporting cast seems to fade into the marbleized plywood backdrop.

Pirandello is exploring the tenuous nature of sanity, and in drips and drabs we do get some pearls to ponder. A twist in the final act (one better left unrevealed) also ups the intrigue and interest. But by curtain fall, all I came away with (besides a mild headache) was a slightly better understanding of medieval happenings. Thank God for the program notes.

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