Chicago Theatre Review
Madness Versus Sanity
Pirandello’s Henry IV – Remy Bumppo
Who’s to say where sanity ends and madness begins? Written in 1921 by Nobel Prize winning playwright and authoLuigi Pirandello (“Six Characters in Search of an Author,” “Right You are, If You Think You Are”), this play is a strange, unsettling combination of comedy and drama that debates the issue of who exactly is the madman and who’s really sane.
Before the curtain rises, an eccentric Italian aristocrat, dressed as Henry IV for Carnevale, was knocked out when he fell from his horse. When he finally recovered consciousness the unnamed man believed that he really was Henry IV, the 11th century Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. For the next 20 years his family, under their doctor’s directive, has kept the man dressed in period costume and living in a recreation of what appears to be Henry’s imperial palace in Germany. He’s even been waited upon by three young privy counselors, also dressed in 11th century costumes, who serve Henry’s every need.
As the play begins, the three young men, who have been employed to play Henry’s counselors and servants, are interviewing another new young man to join their workforce. As a way of providing the necessary exposition for the audience, the counselors patiently explain in detail to the newcomer that this man, who believes himself to be Henry IV, isn’t imagining himself the English monarch depicted in Shakespeare’s history, but rather, the Germanic Emperor.
The man’s family soon arrives and the charade continues, per the new psychiatrist’s instructions. Doctor Genoni hopes that by having everyone play a role in appropriate period costumes, his patient will eventually be shocked back into reality once again. What the audience learns about “Henry” in Act II, however, may surprise them, but it raises the playwright’s many questions about reality and sanity versus fantasy and madness.
This production of Pirandello’s play, translated by English playwright Tom Stoppard, opens Remy Bumppo’s 20th season with a bang. Guided by artistic director Nick Sandys, the production has real bite. It’s peopled by interesting characters who drive the complicated story to its shocking conclusion. Staged upon Joe Schermoly’s detailed re-creation of an 11th century palace, and dominated by two, beautifully rendered life-size paintings of the main characters, this off-kilter story moves over and through this formally balanced environment. Costumed with style and texture by Rachel Lambert, the characters effortlessly segue between the 11th and 20th centuries.
The cast is, as always at this theatre, uniformly talented and captivating. Mark L. Montgomery plays “Henry” with the power and panache one would expect. His madness is seen primarily through his piercing eyes and fiercely violent actions. He nicely contrasts this element of his persona with more relaxed, somber moods that often elicit laughter. Antagonist Belcredi is played with brilliance by James Houton, Lady Matilda is portrayed with grace and beauty by Patrice Egleston, lovely Clare Cooney is perfection as the mysterious, cat-like Frida and Chris Amos is appropriately skeptical as his nephew, Di Nolli. Noah Simon is a pompous, confident Doctor and veteran actor Walter Brody makes a courteous manservant, Giovanni. The four counselors are skillfully played with subservient youth and awe by Jake Szczepaniak, Michael Turrentine, Martel Manning and Chris Vizurraga, as the new boy on the block.
This is a strangely complicated play that demands the full attention of its audience, lest they become lost and fail to understand what’s real and what’s fantasy. Madness and sanity go hand-in-hand in Pirandello’s highly acclaimed comic drama, but it’s up to each theatergoer to sift through what he’s just seen and heard to determine where on the spectrum each belongs. Amidst the drama there are plenty of chuckles; but in the end, it’s “Henry” who ultimately has the last laugh.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 5-November 13 by Remy Bumppo Theatre Company at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.RemyBumppo.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.