Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

It's Good to Be the King 

Under the weight of too much explanation, Enrico IV's lead still manages a regal performance

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
The Henry IV of Luigi Pirandello's play was a temperamental German who ruled the Holy Roman Empire between 1069 and 1105 and tried to depose the pope. The pope, Gregory VII, excommunicated him, but Henry had himself pardoned in a theatrical way at Canossa, a mountain retreat, where he stood barefoot in the snow for three days until Gregory allowed him to kneel at his feet. These historical tidbits are background for Enrico IV, which is not about Henry but about an Italian aristocrat in the 20th century who thinks he's Henry, 20 years after Canossa.

Enrico's friends and servants have mocked up costumes, lighting, and a lavish medieval set to maintain the dream. They even have an album of Gregorian chants on the Gramophone. The curtain rises on a vaulted throne room with stained-glass windows and portraits of the emperor and a woman called Donna Matilda -- all of which, on opening night, received a burst of applause. ("These clothes aren't cheap," says one character in the first act. "What fantasy is?" replies another.)

We don't see Enrico for a while. First, a newcomer arrives at the villa to play one of his hangers-on, and the other servants explain the scenario. The newcomer is mortified when he realizes that he's brushed up on the French Henry IV, who lived 400 years later. Don't worry, say the others. We'll coach you. The speeches and explanations that follow nearly kill the play, because the historical details of Enrico's madness are so obscure and matter so little that watching a group of costumed servants talk about them before anything vital happens is enough to send even a sympathetic audience to sleep. Theater author and critic Eric Bentley calls this section "an expository first act of such cumbersome explanatoriness one would think the author a plodding mediocrity or a careless hack." Carey Perloff's staging fails to improve it.

But then Enrico enters. He has blond-dyed hair and wears a penitent's rags, suggesting his mind is stuck at Canossa, when the real Henry was 26. (The aristocrat himself is 46, and the load of illusion is too much to bear.) Marco Barricelli plays him as a raving tyrant, enthusiastically cruel and as self-convinced as one of Tom Waits' growling drunkards. He passes some comments about the situation in Rome, and complains, "It's the stress -- being under the threat of excommunication." Everyone else just plays along, like debris swept up by a truck.

Enrico is Barricelli's showcase: If he doesn't carry the production, he dominates it, and the energy from his performance may be the only reason to buy a seat. In the second act we learn that Enrico is not as mad as he seems; he steps out of his role and makes fun of the servants who bow and scrape. "You know Enrico IV is long dead," he tells them, "yet you do what he says." He gives speeches on all the usual Pirandellian themes -- illusion, reality, identity, age. "Have you ever been surprised by yourself, my lady?" he says to Matilda, "surprised to find you weren't really the person you thought you were?" Barricelli shoulders the weight of the playwright's philosophy and single-handedly gives it focus; his effort to wake up the subscribers is valiant.

But he could use help from Richard Nelson, who wrote Goodnight Children Everywhere (ACT's last play) and translated Enrico. The show is billed as "a new adaptation" by Nelson, which seems to mean that he rendered Pirandello in a free American idiom but neglected to do much editing. The first act frankly needs an overhaul, and in the last act, the drama of Enrico's sudden sanity, his dismantling of everyone else's delusions, and his return to madness is softened by too many speeches. Nelson should have edited. His "new adaptation" could have been a fresh version of the script that trims Pirandello's repetition.

What we have instead leads to a typical Perloff production -- strong at the core, soft around the edges, a little too literal, with excellent scenery (by Ralph Funicello). The actors who do well besides Barricelli include Anthony Fusco, as a dashing gentleman called Tito, and Felicity Jones as Matilda. Fusco is agile with all his lines; Jones has a commanding and sophisticated grace. Charles Lanyer is an effective Dr. Genoni, and Claire Winters is a capable Frida, but from there things disintegrate. All the servants reach for a farce effect they never achieve, and since their scene of explanations opens the play, they set an unfortunate tone.

Still, Enrico is a tough script, the sort of thing theater wonks thirst for, and I'm glad ACT has attempted it. If you study up beforehand you won't be bored. Barricelli gives a beautiful, bracingly crazed performance that captures some of the universal tragedy of the self-deceived.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"