If all this seems too heady for you, Pirandello's Henry IV may not be a play you want to see. While Tom Stoppard's new version updates and shortens the original, adding some fun modern slang and moments of Monty Python-like humor, it's ultimately a play for people who like to think about plays, a theatrical exploration of the power of performance.
The title character is a rich Italian who, during a masquerade party twenty years earlier, fell from a horse and hit his head. Ever since awakening, he has believed he's the character he was costumed as: the eleventh-century German monarch Henry IV. Rather than institutionalize him, his relatives have played along, and so it has come to pass that he lives in a castle (equipped with a costume department for servants and guests). But Henry's nephew has arrived with a doctor who is determined to cure him and here the "play" begins.
As the mad (or is he?) Henry IV, Andrew Long is captivating. His commanding presence and brilliant transformations rule this Repertory Theatre of St. Louis production: He's funny, scary, melancholy, ruthless and always believable. Susan Wands as his former lover and Jerry Vogel as a former friend play their mysterious motives with compelling zeal. And in a "less is more" performance as Henry's loving long-time servant, Keith Perry delivers the evening's most heart-rending moments in silence and stillness as he contemplates the final scene's bizarre turn of events.
Narelle Sissons' set design, an eleventh-century throne room complete with life-size portraits and coats of armor, is breathtaking. Director Steven Woolf keeps the 85-minute production stylistically consistent, fluidly moving the actors as the story swirls and changes. Unfortunately, Woolf can't do anything to help the play's main problem: Pirandello (and Stoppard in his footsteps) takes too long to bring in the main character. No amount of energy or pacing can cover the fact that it's 30 minutes before we actually see Henry. Once he arrives, the play kicks into gear and then strangely feels as if it's over too soon.
While Henry IV is not, of course, Shakespeare, the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify. This Henry reverberates with Shakespearean themes: Here a smidge of King Lear going mad to discover the meaning of life; there a touch of Hamlet's lunacy; even a "play within a play" designed to catch the conscience of the king. Remarkably, Pirandello wrote Henry IV during a five-week period in which he also wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author and the lesser-known Absolutely! (Perhaps). The interconnectedness of this trio of works that explore the bounds of sanity the overarching theme, in fact, of all Pirandello's work becomes all the more poignant when you throw in the fact that the author was caring for his mentally ill wife even as he wrote. When Henry announces that he wants to live "as a madman of sound mind," you can almost hear Pirandello hoping that such a fate might be possible for his wife.
Maybe Pirandello and Stoppard should have paid attention to their title character, who laments of "our whole lives crippled by the weight of words." Certainly this version is a sleeker and slimmer play, a sort of Pirandello Lite, but even so it feels language-heavy. With its energy and visual appeal, the Rep's production of Henry IV is tantalizing, an excellent appetizer that leaves you hungry for more just not more words.