Madness and mannerisms introduce the viewer to a distorted and often flat view of humanity in the first fall experimental production at the Dramat.
Ten minutes into the play it becomes clear that Luigi Pirandello’s “Henry IV,” in a new adaptation by Tom Stoppard, isn’t about European monarchs in England, France or Germany. For all its faults, this production adequately addresses themes of mental illness, free will and the very nature of reality while featuring a gem of a performance.
After a less than inspiring pre-show featuring four young men sweeping the stage, the action begins with the same youths (Adam Horowitz ’09, Andy Wagner ’09, David Their ’09 and Michael Rucker ’07) rambling Stoppard platitudes on identity — “Who are we really? Just names with a period.” By this point, the plot has become secondary, but eventually we discover that an elaborate ruse lies at the heart of this quick two-act play.
The young men have been hired to play Henry IV’s attendants in an 11th-century castle because Henry IV (Kobi Libii ’07) doesn’t know that he isn’t really a German monarch. To quote the Marquis Carlo Di Nolli (Alexander Newman-Wise ’08), “That’s what mad men do and that’s all there is to it.”
More lunacy ensues as philosophy continues to spew from the mouths of Stoppard’s characters. The first 10 minutes would have worked as a lecture, but trying to understand it in play form was nearly impossible.
As the short first act unfolds, the writing becomes more naturalistic, but little else improves. In his direction, Joshua Brody ’07 gives his actors vividly extreme physicalities without ever fleshing out the mental state of each character.
The actors move like stilted pieces on a chess board, and paying attention to the action is possible, but not horribly interesting. Every so often, glimpses of marital difficulties appear between the Marquis and the Marchese Matilda (Ashley Fox ’08), but the emotions and gestures seem so forced that it is difficult to believe that these characters were ever married, although Fox does her best to hold up her end of the relationship.
In a comic turn as a “quack” doctor, Paul Spera ’08 makes the best use of his character’s presence, but it still comes across as overly artificial.
Stoppard himself describes the first act perfectly in the opening scene: “Great outfits, handsome surroundings, shame about the puppets.”
Luckily, the puppetry relaxes once Libii takes the stage as the titular madman. His physicality is as extreme as the rest of the cast’s, but he embraces it and begins to inhabit the character after taking the first rambling monologue to warm up. The details of his performance are at first merely amusing, but later begin to add depth to the confusing portrait of a tormented man as act two unfolds.
By the second act, “Henry” is rescued by an ingenious plot twist, saving it from the stilted artificiality that characterizes the first 30 minutes.
The production is also quite handsomely designed. While the puppet acting through the first act fails to engage the audience, the lush fabrics, worn leather and intricate detailing on the costumes, designed by Susannah Kemple ’08, capture the eye.
The set, designed by Tory Wolcott ’06, evokes the dismal interior of a medieval castle stretched to fit the boundaries of a madman. The alternately starkly realistic and oddly ethereal atmosphere also receives a great deal of conditioning from the skillful lighting design (Emmet Zackheim ’08).
The first act may bore you to tears while simultaneously making it impossible to follow the plot, but the second act is worth making the proverbial grin and bearing it. Those who stay through intermission will be rewarded with a moving performance by Libii, who rises far above the rest of the cast to make Pirandello’s and Stoppard’s complex ideas come to bracing life.